Fearing worst about cabbie

Missing: Friends and customers of a Baltimore taxi driver fear that he was a fatal victim of the Interstate 95 accident.

January 17, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore taxi driver Marc Baladi failed to show up at the home of Terri Uttermohlen on Tuesday afternoon, she knew something was amiss. He had just dropped off a ballet teacher in Columbia, then phoned to say he would be arriving in half an hour.

This wasn't just any cab driver, mind you. Baladi, 63, had built a clientele that depended on his punctuality, his lively conversation and, often, his friendship.

He ferried customers on errands, or even to shop for a Christmas tree, lashing it to the trunk of his Red Ball taxi.

Failing to show up for his appointed rounds would have been highly unusual; doing so without phoning, unthinkable.

Then Uttermohlen heard that a fiery accident had shut down northbound Interstate 95. A gasoline tanker had exploded, and several vehicles had disappeared into the flames, right along the route Baladi would have taken to her Keswick Avenue house.

"I knew he was involved somehow, maybe tied up in traffic," she said. "When he hadn't called an hour later, I figured he was involved in the accident. And when I heard there were no survivors, I figured he was dead."

She called the state police with her concerns. Investigators, meanwhile, were collecting evidence at the scene to identify the burned vehicles in which four people had died. They established that one was a taxi, and police told Uttermohlen that they had recovered its license tag.

Maryland Transportation Authority investigators visited Baladi's empty home in Hamilton on Wednesday night and interviewed neighbors.

Yesterday, state officials said they were awaiting the results of DNA testing to confirm the identity of the driver of the burned taxi.

Anticipating the worst, Baladi's friends, neighbors and customers have already begun sharing their stories of him - telling them in the past tense.

"I will miss Marc as a friend, and as a resource," Uttermohlen, a technical assistance trainer for Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote in a two-page tribute that she sent to The Sun. "He was a valuable part of the fabric of my daily life, and of the lives of many of my friends. Like me, many of his clients were blind professionals, who would share his name with others like the name of a fabulous wine."

Baladi lived in the downstairs of a two-story duplex he owned on Berkshire Road, renting out the upstairs.

Blinds and curtains were drawn over his windows yesterday, and no one had seen his pinkish-orange taxi since early Tuesday morning.

Childhood in Egypt

He didn't set out to be a taxi driver. A student in Swarthmore College's class of '64, he taught school for a while - high school French, one friend said - and drove a cab during summer vacations.

After discovering he could make more money from his taxi, he began driving full-time.

He spoke softly with a slight accent, a relic of his childhood in Egypt.

And he always had something to say about politics (he was a devoted Republican), book recommendations or his latest culinary expedition - sometimes driving to Northern Virginia for baklava.

Divorced several years ago, and with no children, Baladi lived alone.

Friends said that his parents were deceased and that his brother lives in Europe.

All of which might help explain why the cab has sometimes seemed more like his real home. He was behind the wheel 12 hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes driving until 3:15 a.m. His only break was a vacation each fall to West Virginia.

Neighbors said he was quiet, kind and intensely private at home, though sometimes they, too, were among his regular customers.

"I saw him Tuesday morning at 6:30," said a neighbor who sometimes baked bread and cookies for him. She didn't want her name published because state investigators had asked neighbors not to speak with the news media until the victim's identity was confirmed. "He was a great neighbor. We were friends, one to the other."

`He was a find'

Earlier this week, Baladi had proudly showed her, and others, a clipping from a Jan. 10 newspaper. It was a Sun column by Jacques Kelly, a longtime friend and customer.

"My cab driver made me an offer I had no trouble accepting," the column began. "On the way into the office, he'd drive me through a neighborhood he calls the Twilight Zone, a place of drug dealers and transvestites better known as Barclay Street, south of North Avenue to Oliver Street."

That was the way he was, always wanting to share whatever he had learned about the city or some new restaurant, said Uttermohlen.

"He was a find," she said, "a kind human being who gave a damn."

Sun staff writer Reginald Fields contributed to this article.

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