- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

BALTIMORE — Two survivors of a capsized water taxi helped searchers yesterday locate the exact accident site as the death toll reached two and the hunt for three missing persons, all presumed dead, entered its fourth day.

“If we can just pinpoint where the boat capsized … the bodies will be within a hundred feet,” said William J. Goodwin Jr., chief of the Baltimore Fire Department and a former rescue diver.

The recovery team, lead by the fire department, has struggled to locate the precise spot at which Seaport Taxi’s “Lady D” overturned in a sudden, fierce thunderstorm Saturday with 25 persons aboard. Within minutes of the accident near Fort McHenry, strong winds and swift currents carried the overturned 36-foot pontoon about a mile down the Patapsco River to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, scattering debris along the way.

For four days, divers have crawled in total darkness and in 3 feet of silt on the bottom of the 50-foot-deep shipping channel as they searched for the bodies of 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Rockingham County, Va., and Corinne J. Schillings and Andrew M. Roccella, 26-year-olds from Northern Virginia who were about to become engaged.

Mr. Roccella had a diamond ring in his pocket, a relative said yesterday.

He had gone shopping with his mother for the ring. By Saturday afternoon, he was waiting for the perfect moment to take his girlfriend’s father aside, ask for his blessing, and then propose to Miss Schillings, his girlfriend of five years.

“That’s the kind of people they were — very traditional, very family-oriented, people who did things the right way, the old-fashioned way,” said Ray Krek, Miss Schillings’ uncle.

“Everybody knew that before the weekend was over, he’d propose. They were as close to Romeo and Juliet as you can get.”

The couple’s parents survived the accident.

Lisa Pierce of Lyndhurst, N.J., became the accident’s second confirmed fatality when she died Monday evening at Harbor Hospital. Miss Pierce, 30, had been in critical condition since being pulled from the frigid water.

Her mother, JoAnn Pierce, 60, of Cumberland County, N.J., died at the scene of the accident.

The missing boy’s sister, 8-year-old Sarah Bentrem, remained in critical condition yesterday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Their mother and father and a 7-year-old sister were also on the boat, but escaped without serious injury.

Three other passengers also remained hospitalized yesterday.

Most of the passengers were out-of-state visitors to the city’s Inner Harbor, a popular tourist destination with restaurants, shops and nearby attractions such as the National Aquarium and historic Fort McHenry.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley said yesterday the prolonged search for the missing highlights the city’s humanity.

“I hope [the accident] is showing us to be the proud, compassionate and resilient people we have always been,” Mr. O’Malley told reporters at recovery command post at Fort McHenry.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators continued their work yesterday, interviewing more passengers to learn what went wrong.

The agency will issue a preliminary report in about a week but will take about a year to make recommendations, which may include stiffer rules for wearing life vests aboard commuter and tour boats, officials said.

Coast Guard regulations require tour boats to carry life vests for each passenger, but wearing one is optional. The roughly 700,000 passengers that ride Baltimore’s water taxis each year rarely wear the vests, and none of the passengers on the “Lady D” wore one on Saturday.

The investigators also are asking passengers whether the boat’s captain and first mate told them to put on life vests after receiving a severe weather advisory just minutes before the accident.

Fireboats with sonar gear have located objects on the bottom for the divers to investigate. But so far only an anchor, a metal chest, a heavy rope, crab pots and other debris have been found.

With the help of the two unidentified survivors from Saturday’s accident and a Naval reservist who witnessed the accident from the shore, the recovery team focused its search yesterday about 100 yards closer to the Inner Harbor from where they were looking Monday.

The new search coordinates also were closer to the east bank, in about 30 feet of water. The shallower depth and calm water yesterday made the search easier, but divers still struggled with zero visibility and near-freezing temperatures as they felt along the bottom for the bodies.

Chief Goodwin said search- ers were encouraged yesterday when they moved into the new area and found what they believed to be the boat’s canopy or the cabin structure, which meant the bodies could be near.

“In my 28 years, we’ve never left anybody out there, but we’ve never had a debris field this big,” Chief Goodwin said. “So we’re becoming comfortable that we’re narrowing in on the area.”

Searchers made maps of the new area, marking off sections of the harbor that they had already covered and creating a grid of 100-square-yard sections.

The Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the 11 Seaport Taxis, has not operated since the accident out of respect for the victims and their families. However, other water taxi companies have continued to run across the harbor.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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