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1 Killed, 3 Presumed Dead in Baltimore Harbor Accident

A water taxi carrying 25 people is capsized by 'a freak burst of wind.' Rescuers arrive quickly.

March 07, 2004|From the Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A fierce gust of wind flipped a water taxi with 25 people aboard in Baltimore's Inner Harbor on Saturday, leaving one dead and three presumed drowned.

Federal safety officials began an investigation into what was the city's first passenger-ferry fatality since the boats began cruising the harbor more than two decades ago.

The accident occurred within sight of naval reservists training nearby, who moved quickly to pull victims from the 44-degree waters shortly after the pontoon boat flipped about 4 p.m. local time.

Into the night, three police and Coast Guard helicopters soared over the water looking for signs of the missing, and several rescue boats slowly trawled the harbor with beacons. "The physiological aspects of someone surviving in the water for three hours is pretty slim to none," Fire Chief William Goodwin said.

Tourists and members of the Puerto Rico National Guard were among those aboard the 36-foot Seaport Taxi boat, which was about a 100 yards offshore and turning toward the dock when the wind overtook it, officials said.

"There's a microburst coming through the harbor," a captain on shore radioed the boat's captain shortly before the accident, said James Piper Bond, president and chief executive officer of the Living Classrooms Foundation, an educational nonprofit group that owns the boat. The boat's captain immediately turned toward shore, Bond said.

But the boat didn't make it, capsizing in "a freak burst of wind," Bond said.

"It just rolled over," said Petty Officer Edward Mendez, who was on the second floor of the Naval Reserve Center at Ft. McHenry when he saw the accident. "Ten of our guys went into the water to rescue the passengers. A couple guys just dove in."

A woman in her 60s, who was pulled from the water shortly after the accident, died at the hospital. An 8-year-old girl was in cardiac arrest but was revived and was undergoing surgery Saturday night, police said. Two other victims were in critical condition. It was not clear if the 8-year-old was one of the two.

The fatalities were the first associated with Baltimore's water-taxi service, which arrived in the late 1970s just before the revitalization of the city's Inner Harbor, officials said.

Among those rescued were the captain and first mate. Capt. Francis Deppner, 74, of Middle River, told authorities that he had just called the Coast Guard to report the number of passengers on the boat and his destination of Fells Point when a thunderstorm suddenly swept into the area, said Maj. Fred Bealefeld of the Southern Police District.

"Without warning a strong wind grabbed the craft, and the next thing they knew, they were in the water and they had no time to put life vests on," Bealefeld said. "There wasn't even time for that."

Representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene to take charge of the investigation. Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said investigators will focus on four areas: operations, engineering, human factors and survivor factors.

She said the weather was likely "one of the key factors" in the accident.

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