Harbor losses

March 08, 2004

SATURDAY SEEMED like the perfect afternoon for a boat ride - sunny and warm, with a promise of spring in the air - but the day turned deadly with a quick change of weather. The capsizing of a Seaport Taxi in the water off Fort McHenry serves as a grim reminder of nature's powerful, and sometimes capricious, force.

A sudden squall - a "microburst," in the words of one boat captain - brought wind gusts nearing 50 miles an hour barreling through the harbor, roiling the waves and turning an afternoon outing into a nightmare for the 25 people aboard the water taxi, and into a death trap for at least four of them. And were it not for luck and a host of heroes, it could have been much, much worse.

When the boat overturned as it tried to make its way back to shore, it was within sight of the Baltimore Fire Department's water rescue station and the U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center, where officers were participating in weekend exercises. Within sight, that is, if anyone was looking. And they were.

As detailed by reporter Howard Libit in The Sun yesterday, two men at the training center saw the boat flip. One of them, Petty Officer Edward Mendez, quickly alerted the rescue station. Meanwhile, some 20 naval reserve officers set out in a troop deployment vessel toward the capsized taxi, where about half of them plunged into the near-frigid water to help haul victims to the safety of their boat. Sadly, not everyone could be saved. But thanks to quick thinking and selfless instincts, most were.

No doubt, the storm was a primary factor in the tragedy; whether other factors played a part - the stability of the pontoon-style boat, the decision to set out when a small craft advisory was in effect, the suitability of the taxi for crossing the harbor - won't be known until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation.

That's when we'll know what steps, if any, must be taken to prevent something like this from happening again. The ubiquitous taxis have served tourists and locals as well for more than 20 years without serious incident - until Saturday. That's a laudable record, but cold comfort to those who were in that fateful boat.

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