Friday, March 12, 2004

BALTIMORE — Searchers yesterday found the roof of a water taxi that capsized and sank, giving them a promising site to look for the bodies of three Virginia residents missing for nearly a week.

An 8-pound robotic video camera working with sonar equipment helped find the 25-by-8-foot roof and six objects nearby that divers needed to investigate to see if they were bodies, Baltimore City Fire Department Chief William Goodwin said.

He called the discovery of the roof in the water near Fort McHenry the “most significant find of the week.”

The Seaport Taxi flipped last Saturday in a sudden thunderstorm with wind gusts up to 55 mph, sending all 25 persons on board into chilly, choppy water. Two died after they were rescued and three remain missing.

The robotic camera that swims through the water saw the roof section yesterday morning, said Bob Christ, the owner of Seatrepid, a marine engineering firm that owns the camera.

He said the discovery of a large piece of debris from the water taxi gave searchers a focus for the rest of the operation.

“The significance of finding the roof is the actual spot of a debris field,” Mr. Christ said. “That’s going to be the beginning data point where we base all of our searches.”

Crews planned to bring the roof to the surface, put it on a barge and bring it to shore. It was to be turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board for its investigation of the accident.

Mr. Christ’s company and Marine Sonic Technology, a sonar equipment manufacturing firm based in White Marsh, Va., lent the equipment and donated their workers’ time to find the search targets.

“It takes a trained eye, a skilled hand and a couple of dollars and cents, which we didn’t have at our disposal,” Chief Goodwin said.

In addition to the equipment donated by private companies, a Navy ship was on the scene yesterday with an underwater camera of its own. It was checking on 14 search sites identified Thursday by a robotic submarine.

Searchers have struggled during the past week with cold temperatures and murky waters. Promising targets at the bottom of the harbor in recent days turned out to be tree stumps, lumber and mounds of dirt.

The debris found yesterday was clearly from the water taxi because the video camera showed writing and a sign with instructions, markings that were known to be on the capsized vessel, Chief Goodwin said.

Missing are Northern Virginia residents Corinne J. Schillings and Andrew Roccella, both 26, and 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va.

Daniel’s sister, 8-year-old Sarah Bentrem, was the only victim still in the hospital; she remained in critical condition yesterday. The children were on the water taxi with their parents and 7-year-old sister.

Strong gusts flipped the boat as the captain attempted to steer it to shore after receiving a radio warning of the storm from the Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the Seaport Taxi fleet. There were lifejackets on board for everyone, but passengers are not required to wear them.

For a second day yesterday, the Living Classrooms Foundation canceled the resumption of Seaport Taxi service. Officials with the foundation said service would remain suspended out of respect to the victims.

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