Amid search for the missing, haunting memory for survivor

Sun Staff

Despite intense search efforts yesterday, three passengers from the capsized Seaport Taxi remained missing in the frigid waters off Fort McHenry as some survivors recounted more tales of horror and heroism from Saturday's harbor tragedy.

In addition to the three missing people who are presumed to have perished, one passenger was confirmed dead and two others were clinging to life at area hospitals in the wake of the city's first fatal water taxi accident.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. was determined to find the bodies of the three missing passengers today for the sake of their families.

"It's quite dismal," said Goodwin's spokesman, Kevin Cartwright, of recovery efforts. "Hopefully, we can bring these people home."

Divers were expected to continue plumbing the cold, murky depths of the Patapsco River today using sophisticated sonar equipment.

Meanwhile, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board completed a preliminary inquiry yesterday and were planning today to re-create the last trip of the 36-foot pontoon boat, Lady D, to help determine what went wrong.

On Saturday a rapidly moving thunderstorm struck the 2-ton Seaport Taxi shortly after it left its Fort McHenry dock about 4 p.m. Fierce wind gusts flipped the boat as its captain attempted to steer it back to shore after receiving late-arriving storm warnings.

State lawmakers clamored yesterday for answers to why National Weather Service warnings did not reach the boat until it had left Fort McHenry for Fells Point with 25 passengers.

Four passengers from the Lady D were members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard deployed in Washington and visiting Baltimore. They are Master Sgt. David Blakeley and Staff Sgts. Antonio Acosta, Alejandro Gonzalez and Luis Nazario, according to the unit's public information officer.

The four men gave e-mail accounts released by the National Guard of the accident. All four escaped from the overturned vessel by swimming through two windows that they broke and opened.

"When the boat turned over water started coming in really fast," Blakeley wrote. "As the water started coming up to what was now the top of the boat I took a deep breath. ... As I got ready to exhale I saw a light and the next thing I know I was on the surface and saw our guys."

Blakeley wrote that he then saw a couple who had two children still under water. "They were screaming for someone to help them," he wrote. "I swam down and felt a foot and got the crew mate, who was turning purple."

Blakeley said Acosta and Nazario gave CPR to the Lady D's crew mate and "brought him back to life."

Critical injuries

Not everyone was as fortunate.

Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., was pulled from the water but died. The two passengers still in critical condition are Pierce's 30-year-old daughter, Lisa, and 8-year-old Sara Bentrem.

The missing are 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem, of Harrisonburg, Va., who was on an outing with his parents and two sisters, and Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill., and her fiance, Andrew M. Roccella, also 26, of Virginia.

Five friends of Roccella and Schillings arrived at Fort McHenry yesterday to watch recovery efforts. They cried and hugged one another as seven boats with divers searched a 1,000-square-yard area about 150 yards from shore in weather that went from sunshine to rain to hail.

One young man, who declined to give his name, said the couple had dated nearly six years. Family members said Roccella was about to give Schillings an engagement ring. The couple, and their parents, came to Baltimore for a weekend trip.

The Baltimore Fire Department searched yesterday with the help of 14 fire department divers and sonar equipment. One sonar device was made available by Marine Sonic Technology, a White Marsh, Va., firm that offered the city free use of the system Sunday. Fire officials began using it yesterday.

The $30,000 sonar includes a 35-pound, torpedo-shaped "tow fish" that was placed in the water and towed beside a recovery boat. The tow fish sends out a sound beam that returns images of objects that it detects to a computer screen.

The sonar device collected enough data to create an accurate picture of the 50-foot-deep channel's bottom.

No guarantees

A company official acknowledged that there is no guarantee when or whether the sonar will be able to find the bodies. The sonar's operators can be fooled by objects that might resemble a body.

The devices detected three objects yesterday that divers tried to identify in the 36-degree, zero-visibility water. All three turned out to be debris, according to Cartwright.

Many onlookers and the friends of Roccella and Schillings assumed the bodies would have floated downstream from Fort McHenry and wondered why recovery efforts were focused near where the boat capsized.

Medical experts said the water temperature might keep bodies from surfacing. Cold slows the natural decaying process that begins when someone dies. When a submerged body warms, gases are created that make it rise to the surface. Chilly waters have been known to keep drowning victims submerged for weeks and months.

"Some will float and some will sink. Every case is different," said Dr. David Fowler, chief medical examiner for Maryland.

The cold water also meant that even in wet suits, Fire Department divers could stay down for only about 20 minutes at a stretch.

"The divers have been doing a terrific job working in shifts in some pretty tough circumstances," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "We're not relenting."

He said the city would not conduct an investigation into the two companies that operate Inner Harbor water taxis: Seaport Taxi and the Water Taxi. He said the city only licenses the boats for docking privileges and seaworthiness was determined by the Coast Guard.

"The city is focused on the rescue efforts," O'Malley said. "The NTSB is doing the investigation."

The NTSB's preliminary inquiry, which was completed yesterday, consisted of 10 interviews with passengers, Navy reservists who assisted in the rescue and Seaport Taxi officials.

Captain interviewed

The Lady D's captain, Francis Deppner, 74, a retired Army major from Middle River, was interviewed Sunday at the Fells Point campus of the Living Classrooms Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Seaport Taxi.

A Vietnam War veteran who served in the Army for 28 years, Deppner received his Coast Guard license in April 2002 and became a captain for Seaport Taxi that July. The boat was in compliance with all of its licensing requirements.

The Coast Guard had repeatedly inspected and certified the Lady D and granted it a license to cruise to the fort in March 2003, a license still valid at the time of the accident. The boat was approved for 25 passengers.

About 50 members of the board of directors of the Living Classrooms Foundation met in Baltimore last night, said CEO and President James Piper Bond. He said the purpose of the meeting was to bring board members up to date on the water taxi accident. He declined to elaborate.

NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman-Conners said investigators will be examining the amount of safety training the boat's crew had received and how much safety information was relayed to passengers. She said the canopy of the boat remains missing and investigators would like to retrieve it.

The agency's investigators tracked down the boat's sister vessel in Toledo, Ohio, and are trying to get the drawings from the manufacturer. They are also getting the engineering designs for the Lady D.

The boat had logged what Engleman-Conners called "a fairly minor accident history." It reported three incidents since 1999. The most serious occurred June 11, 1999, and in November 2000 when, on both occasions, the boat ran into a pier.

Today, investigators are expected to travel the route the boat was supposed to take and to re-create the boat's final run. Engleman-Conners said the NTSB will complete its formal investigation in a year.

Other investigations

State lawmakers might want answers sooner than that.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday that she plans to hold a committee hearing to ask questions about emergency weather communications and the rules governing life preserver use.

McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee which oversees transportation, said she might announce plans next week on when her committee will hear from the Coast Guard.

Some lawmakers said the General Assembly should hold off while the NTSB investigates. McIntosh's counterpart in the state Senate was less sure of his plans. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the legislature might have to address many of the same questions McIntosh raised.

"Our future in Baltimore depends heavily on tourism and that's who uses" the water taxi, the Charles County Democrat said.

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, Dennis O'Brien and Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

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