Agony As Harbor Search Continues

Unidentified mourners console one another Monday, March 8, 2004, as search and rescue teams continue to search Baltimore's Inner Harbor for three missing victims from a water taxi that capsized Saturday. The boat carrying 25 people capsized killing at least one as a storm swept through Baltimore. A man, a woman and child are still missing.
AP
Searches of Baltimore Harbor have so far failed to find three people who have been missing since Saturday, when a water taxi capsized during a sudden storm.

The Seaport Taxi pontoon boat Lady D overturned Saturday afternoon near Fort McHenry when the area was struck by a sudden storm with wind gusting to 55 mph. Of the 25 people on board, one died after being pulled from the water, and a man, a woman and a 6-year-old boy are still missing and feared dead.

Five people are still in the hospital, two of them in critical condition: the 30-year-old daughter of the woman who died after being rescued, and the 8-year-old sister of the boy who is still missing.

The Baltimore Sun reports divers plan to continue the grim search Tuesday in the Patapsco River, with the help of sonar equipment.

Investigators Tuesday plan to travel the route of the last trip of the boat to try to determine what went wrong.

Investigators interviewing witnesses and survivors are looking at both the cause of the accident and the question of whether proper precautions were taken before the tourist boat went down.

Federal investigators want to know if the two-man crew told passengers to put on life jackets after getting word from the boat's owner that the storm was headed their way. The boat was equipped with life jackets, but passengers are not required to wear them.

The water taxi's owner radioed the captain that the thunderstorm was approaching and he started for shore, said Ellen Engleman-Conners, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"There was a report of communication between the owner-operator of the vessel and the vessel concerning the weather," she said.

The timing of warnings from the National Weather Service - whose advisory for boats to get off the water reportedly did not come until after the accident - is another focus of the investigation.

State legislators are considering holding hearings on both the timing of the weather advisories and the rules on the use of life preservers.

Engleman-Conners said officials interviewed about 10 witnesses Monday, including Navy reservists who helped rescue victims.

Divers braved frigid, murky waters Monday to investigate three objects discovered with a sonar that could have been the missing passengers, fire spokesman Kevin Cartwright said. But after hours of searching, all the objects were ruled out, Cartwright said.

Search crews focused on a channel about 50 feet deep in an area marked by buoys. The water temperature was about 36 degrees, meaning that even in wet suits divers could stay on the bottom only about 20 minutes at a time, Baltimore Fire Department Chief William Goodwin said.

They also faced zero visibility at times and treacherous debris on the bottom.

"This is an old harbor. It's not the Bahamas out there," Goodwin said.

The NTSB said an initial inspection found that the capsized boat's steering system appeared to be intact. The boat is scheduled to be removed Tuesday from the water for further inspection at a boat yard.

The taxi's safety records showed no major accidents, the NTSB added, and the captain's license is valid.

The crew's actions were defended Monday by James Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the taxi fleet. Both crewmen survived.

"Our guys did the best they could when this bad weather came," Bond said.

Navy reservists rushed to the scene after seeing the boat in trouble. The sailors described the horrific scene: survivors clinging to the overturned vessel in frigid water pounded by wind-driven rain, telling them more were trapped below.

"It was pretty hateful," Petty Officer Henry Zecher said. "I'm relieved that we were able to save as many lives as we were."

The 36-foot pontoon boat, which was at full capacity, had just set off across the harbor from historic Fort McHenry on the way to the city's Fells Point when it overturned.

Killed in the accident was JoAnn Pierce, 60, of New Jersey, according to The Daily Journal of Vineland, N.J.

The missing are identified by relatives and media reports as Corinne Schillings, 26, of Illinois; her fiance, Andrew Roccella, 26, of Virginia; and Daniel Bentrem, 6, of Virginia.