About an hour before the sun broke over Canton Waterfront Park on Wednesday, Ricky Bradley noticed something strange as he took in the cool summer morning: a silver car heading down a wide brick walkway, straight for the water's edge.
Just feet from the water, a young man slipped out of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and ran through the park, over the Maryland Korean War Memorial and back toward Boston Street, Bradley said.
"He was taking his clothes off as he was going over the memorial, changing his outfit," said Bradley, 52, of Highlandtown. "He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a split-second kind of thing, like it was programmed."
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Canton Waterfront Park, 3001 Boston Street, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA
The car kept on rolling, straight into the harbor, Bradley said. "We watched the lights go under."
Not knowing whether anyone else was in the vehicle, Bradley called 911 as two other men tried to chase the man who had fled.
The bizarre incident set into motion an hours-long operation to search for the vehicle, determine whether it was empty (which it was), and tow it out of the harbor. Dozens of curious residents stopped to watch the scene as they walked their dogs, boarded a nearby water taxi and went on morning jogs.
The car later would be reported stolen, Baltimore police said.
Emergency responders first arrived at the scene in the 2900 block of Boston St. about 5 a.m., assessed the situation and quickly called for search-and-rescue teams to respond, said Ian Brennan, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman.
About 6:30 a.m., two Baltimore police divers jumped from a Fire Department boat into the dark waters of the harbor as other emergency personnel lined the waterfront. The Fire Department's own dive team is suspended currently as members seek new certifications.
The police divers searched the submerged Jeep and found it empty, Brennan said.
The divers then attached large orange inflatable bags to the vehicle, to lift it in the water, and a police boat towed it to a nearby ramp onto shore.
Two fireboats, a police boat, a police underwater recovery team and a special operations water rescue team from Anne Arundel County responded to the scene.
A Fire Department hazardous-materials team and officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment also responded and determined that less than a gallon of gasoline had leaked from the car into the harbor and formed a thin film on the surface, according to Jay Apperson, an MDE spokesman. However, officials didn't try to contain the gas.
"When the film is thin like this, forming a rainbow sheen, it is too thin for absorbents to work," Apperson said in an email. The gasoline will instead evaporate off the water's surface, he said.
Police are investigating the theft of the vehicle and whether it was involved in any other crime in the city overnight.