Patapsco, Baltimore's harbor no stranger to calamities

Seaport Taxi Boat Capsizes

March 07, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's sprawling harbor and miles of Patapsco River shoreline have been the scene of emergencies, near escapes and outright tragedy.

Baltimore's fireboats handle an average of 97 calls a year, most during the summer. A smaller vessel, Fire Rescue 1, a speedboat used for medical emergencies, responds to an average of 113 calls a year, according to official figures.

Historians of the Great Baltimore Fire noted that the city's fireboats helped check the path of flames on Feb. 8, 1904 as flames reached a natural barrier at the Jones Falls. The blaze, which began the day before in a warehouse on the site of today's First Mariner Arena, initially raced to the northeast, but soon turned toward the harbor when the wind direction shifted. Dozens of ancient warehouses on piers along Pratt Street burned, but fireboats doused lumberyards with cold water pumped from the Patapsco.

It was much the same on a humid August day in 2002, when smoke from piles of wood mulch piled four stories tall burned at a recycling plant near Sparrows Point. Because there were no fire hydrants nearby, Baltimore's fireboats siphoned water from nearby Bear Creek onto the flames, which at one point covered about three acres.

On a 18-degree night in January 2000, gusting winds from the northwest blew the water right out of Baltimore harbor, lowering the water levels so low a fireboat responding to a Clinton Street dock blaze could not get close enough to hose it down.

More from 60 firefighters from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties battled that stubborn pier fire at Transcom Limited in lower Canton. Early in the day, workers discovered the fire burning under a concrete pier built atop a crumbling wooden pier. One fireboat was grounded by the low water, and a second was ineffective because of frozen waterlines, allowing the fire to burn out of control for more than six hours.

In 1984, a spectacular 13-alarm fire raced through the old Henderson's Wharf, a 19th-century tobacco warehouse in Fells Point. City Fire Chief Peter O'Connor stepped inside the burning building and walked across the first floor to test its stability. He fell through the rotten wood and landed in water up to his knees but escaped serious injury.

Violent March winds seem to seek a path along the harbor. Much the shipping in the port was brought to a halt in March 1976 when winds toppled many cranes at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, where much of the port's cargo is handled. Two crane operators were killed.

There were no rescue boats present on the night of July 25, 1883, when Maryland's worst maritime disaster claimed the lives of 63 people - 34 women, 23 children, six men. A wooden pier at the old Tivoli picnic grounds collapsed.

History of Seaport Taxi

Seaport Taxi became a component of the Living Classrooms Foundation four years ago when the nonprofit organization took over operation of the former Harbor Shuttle, which had been a for-profit business.

In addition to providing transportation through the harbor, the Seaport Taxi has provided jobs for Baltimore youth who have worked as mates. The foundation's primary goal is to provide educational and work opportunities for mainly at-risk young people.

Seaport Taxi, which is distinguished by its green trim, operates a fleet of short-haul tourist passenger boats that operate seven days a week throughout the harbor from Harborplace to Canton, with stops at Fort McHenry, Fells Point and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, among other destinations.

It and another water taxi service, the Baltimore Water Taxi, which has blue and white colors, carry about a half million passengers annually.

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