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Squall rolls Baltimore water taxi, kills five

A reported 50-mph gust struck the vessel broadside as it tried to return to the dock

Five people died when a 36-foot pontoon water taxi carrying a full load of 25 passengers capsized in Baltimore’s Northwest Harbor March 6. The fairly narrow boat (8-foot beam) turned turtle as 50- to 55-mph winds hit it broadside during a brief but vicious late afternoon squall.

Survivors clinging to the overturned Lady D’s twin pontoons were pulled to safety by Naval Reserve Training Center reservists who witnessed the capsize, just 100 yards offshore from where they were conducting a weekend training exercise at Fort McHenry. Their quick response in a 72-foot landing craft, from which some rescuers jumped into the 44-degree water, was credited with saving many lives. They also lowered the boat’s retractable landing ramp and used it to lift one end of the overturned boat partially out of the water, freeing passengers trapped underneath. City firefighters on a nearby fire boat also assisted.

It was the first fatal passenger service incident since the water taxis began operating in the harbor some 25 years ago.

The 2-ton Seaport Taxi boat — built in 1996 and powered by a 50-hp Honda outboard — had just left its Fort McHenry dock, shortly before 4 p.m., on a 1-mile tourist run across the open waters of the Patapsco River from South Baltimore’s Locust Point to Fells Point in East Baltimore. Threatening black storm clouds reportedly were visible and rolling in from the northwest when Coast Guard-licensed Capt. Francis Deppner, 74, departed.

Once under way, he soon was warned over the radio by a fellow captain to return to the dock, according to published reports. As Deppner was making his turn, 50-mph gusts reportedly hit the taxi broadside. The boat’s fixed canopy and Plexiglas side curtains, lowered and secured for cool weather, apparently created a lot of windage, and the vessel capsized.

Passengers reportedly were thrown toward the lee side, and their weight broke open the side curtains and provided an escape. If the curtains had not given way and they were wearing PFDs, which wasn’t required, they might have been trapped under the canopy by the very buoyancy designed to save them.

Eric Jahnsen, 25, of Mount Holly, N.C., told a Baltimore Sun reporter that he was under water and desperately searching for a way out. “It seemed like I was pushing on a wall, and all of a sudden it opened,” said Jahnsen.

Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., was pulled from the water and later died at a hospital. Lisa Pierce, her 34-year-old-daughter, died when she was taken off life support two days after the capsize. The bodies of Andrew Roccella and Corinne Schillings, both 26 and of Washington, D.C., and Daniel Bentrem, 6, who was with his family of Harrisonburg, Va., were recovered about a week after the tragedy. Daniel’s sister, Sarah, 8, was in critical condition but improving.

Capt. Deppner — a retired Army major and a licensed captain since 2002 — was among those rescued, along with his 40-year-old mate, also a licensed captain. Both Deppner, who owns a 30-foot Bayliner and a 33-foot Sea Ray, and the mate had been instructed not to comment to the press.

Seaport Taxi, an income-producing arm of the non-profit educational Living Classrooms Foundation, has 10 other water taxis and took over operation of the former Harbor Shuttle four years ago. It operates seven days a week, carrying 200,000 tourists annually on short shuttles throughout the harbor.

A competing service, Baltimore Water Taxi, uses larger vessels in and around the Inner Harbor, and also carries about 200,000 passengers annually. Its owner, Cammie Kane, had ordered her boats back to the dock around 3:40 p.m.

“We monitor weather channels and saw this storm coming on Doppler radar,” she says. “We always err on the side of safety. We don’t just leave the decision up to our captains. We keep an eye on the Doppler, and they run the boats and also watch the weather.”

James Piper Bond, president and CEO of Living Classrooms Foundation, explained that Seaport Taxi boats have communication systems linked to the office that monitors NOAA weather reports and warnings, which in this case apparently were broadcast too late. He could not state, however, if anyone in the office monitors Doppler radar during imminent storm situations.

“Since the tragedy is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, we are not permitted to answer any detailed questions,” said Bond.

The National Weather Service didn’t issue a “special marine warning” until 4:05 p.m., but WeatherBug, an Internet-based weather reporting service, reportedly recorded a 41-mph gust in Frederick in western Maryland at 3:07 p.m. By 3:43 p.m., a 52-mph gust had hit Ellicott City, just outside of Baltimore, and the storm was on track to the Inner Harbor and out the Patapsco, where it would gain ferocity in Chesapeake Bay.

Scott Shane of the Baltimore Sun reported that WeatherBug has 220 automatic weather stations across Maryland that provide readings every two seconds, and was able to show the path of the storm long before it reached the harbor. Small-craft warnings had been posted the day before and were in effect for winds in excess of 20 knots.

Federal investigators from the NTSB are examining the damaged Lady D, along with the safety records and designs of similar passenger-carrying pontoon boats, according to the Sun. Lady D had been regularly inspected by the Coast Guard and certified as being safe to operate on that route, according to Coast Guard Lt. Andrew Ely.

Attempts to reach officials at the boat’s builder, Susquehanna Santee Boatworks in Willow Street, Pa., were unsuccessful.