Water Taxi Victims Search Resumes

Passengers of a capsized water-taxi cling to the hull of the capsized boat in Baltimores Inner Harbor as a U.S. Navy boat approaches to assist in rescue operations Saturday, March 6, 2004 in Baltimore, Md.
AP
Recovery crews equipped with dogs, sonar equipment and helicopters have set out buoys marking off a 1,000-square-yard area where they concentrated their search Monday for the three people missing since a water taxi capsized in Baltimore Harbor.

"We've been able to narrow it down significantly," Baltimore Fire Department Chief William Goodwin said Monday. "We've made some progress."

The Seaport Taxi pontoon boat 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, and a man, a woman and a six-year-old child were still missing.

The boat and other water taxis were trying to return to land because of the weather, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

"We have three people missing and we need to bring them home," Goodwin said. "And that's what we're committed to doing."

"The conditions aren't the best," fire department spokesman James Gardner told CBS Radio News. "It is a sunny day but the temperature is cold and it is slightly windy.

"Our dive team, our swift-water rescue team are in place, along with our regular fireboat personnel, Baltimore city police, and all of the other agencies have been assisting in this effort," Gardner added.

The water temperature was about 36 degrees Monday morning. That meant that, even in their professional-grade wet suits, the divers can only stay on the bottom for about 20 minutes at a time, Goodwin said.

They also faced zero visibility at times and treacherous debris on the bottom. The channel is about 50 feet deep at that point.

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

"With the wind pushing the current, it's no telling where the bodies might turn up, but we will peruse the entirety of the Inner Harbor area, as well as those areas leading out," said Gardner.

Five people remained in hospitals Monday. An 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman were in critical condition.

Federal authorities were looking at the poor weather at the time of the accident, as well as the boat's condition and the actions of its two crew members, said Ellen Engleman-Conners, chairwoman of the NTSB. Both crew members survived.

She said she believed that a small-craft advisory had been issued because of the weather.

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

Asked how the water taxi captain responded, Engleman-Conners said only that investigators were reviewing the report. She told a television interviewer that the Seaport Taxis "were in the process of trying to return to a safe place, to a pier where they could be moored safely."

The Living Classrooms Foundation operates the 11 Seaport Taxis.

"Our guys did the best they could when this bad weather came," said James Bond, the foundation's president.

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.

"I'm guessing it was about eight minutes, seven minutes, before we were on scene," Sr. Chief Petty Officer Vincent Scardina said on CBS News' The Early Show Monday.

"We don't really want to be considered as heroes," Master Chief Petty Officer Melvin Johnson told co-anchor René Syler. "We're humanitarians. We saw a need. We filled it. We saw suffering and we tried to alleviate it."

The 36-foot pontoon boat had just set off across the harbor from historic Fort McHenry on the way to the city's Fells Point neighborhood when it overturned. The boat, which was at capacity, was equipped with life preservers but passengers are not required to wear them.

Authorities declined Monday to release the victims' names. Police Maj. Fred Bealefeld said three of the people on board were from Puerto Rico and others were from Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois and North Carolina.

The dead woman was identified as Joanne Pierce, 60, of Cumberland County, N.J., The Daily Journal of Vineland reported in Monday's editions. The newspaper said she was on the ferry with her daughter, whose name was not released, and her husband, Thomas Pierce. The daughter was reportedly in a coma and on a respirator at Harbor Hospital.

A missing 6-year-old boy was identified as Daniel Bentrem by Thomas Tran, a college student living with the boy's parents, George and Elizabeth Bentrem of Rockingham County, Va. Tran told The Daily News Record of Harrisonburg, Va., that Daniel's 8-year-old sister, Sarah, was being treated at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The couple and another daughter, 7-year-old Katie, were pulled from the water and weren't hurt, Tran said.

Engleman-Conners said an initial inspection of the boat found that the steering system appeared to be intact. The boat was removed from the water for a hull inspection Monday at a Dundalk boat yard.

She said officials also inspected five other boats operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation.

A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group said the boat's captain, Frank O. Deppner, has talked to investigators.

Bond said the boat "was ready for an inspection on Monday and in shape the way she should be."

The Seaport Taxis did not operate Sunday or Monday out of respect for the victims, Bond said.