A grim search continues

As divers seek bodies, NTSB tries to uncover what happened

Harbor Tragedy

Developments

March 08, 2004|By Eric Siegel, Tom Pelton, Laura Loh and Alec MacGillis | Eric Siegel, Tom Pelton, Laura Loh and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

As rescue workers continued to search yesterday for three missing passengers of the Seaport Taxi overturned by a vicious storm Saturday, federal investigators questioned the captain, first mate and other survivors, trying to learn more about the fatal capsizing in Baltimore harbor.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were trying to ascertain, among other things, why word of a rapidly moving thunderstorm did not reach the 36-foot pontoon boat before it left its dock at Fort McHenry. Strong warnings from weather officials about the sudden storm arrived only as the boat had started its trip across the harbor, advisory reports show.

Also yesterday, authorities said that the 2-ton boat, while smaller than some water taxis in use on the harbor, was permitted by safety regulations to run a route across the harbor to Fort McHenry.

With investigators piecing together the details of the the first fatal accident involving a water taxi on the Inner Harbor, the hunt for the missing continued.

When the accident occurred, rescuers from a Naval Reserve base at the fort and a Fire Department boat pulled 22 people from the water, including a 60-year-old woman who died. Officials were still waiting to release her identity yesterday.

The missing are 6-year old Daniel Benstrem, of Harrisonburg, Va., who was on an outing with his family, and Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill., and her fiance, Andrew M. Roccella, also 26, of Virginia.

Baltimore fire and police searched throughout the day, using sonar equipment and divers to scan the bottom of the harbor, before halting their efforts at 6 p.m. because of darkness. The search is to resume this morning.

Family outings

Schillings and Roccella were engaged to be married and had brought their families together for a weekend in Baltimore, according to neighbors in Roccella's parents' Vienna, Va., neighborhood.

Edward and Eileen Roccella and Karen and Denny Schillings were also on the water taxi when it capsized.

The missing little boy, Daniel Bentrem, was vacationing in Baltimore with his parents, George and Elizabeth Bentrem and his two older sisters.

While waiting for word of their son, the Bentrems were watching over their 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, who remained in critical condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said Karim Altaii, a neighbor who drove to Baltimore on Saturday night to be with them.

The family's third child, a 7-year-old girl who was also on the boat, is safe, he said.

Altaii said the Bentrems had been planning to visit Baltimore the previous weekend but postponed it one week because of the weather - a cruel irony in hindsight, he noted.

"George was so excited about taking the kids there and spending quality time with them," Altaii said. George Bentrem is a general practice physician with an office in Broadway, Va.

One other survivor remains in critical condition, a 30-year-old woman, said Fire Department Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. Four other survivors remained in noncritical condition at area hospitals, officials said.

Of the 25 people on the boat, 12 were from Virginia, four were from Maryland, three each were from New Jersey and Illinois, two were from North Carolina and one was from Puerto Rico, officials said.

Licensed to operate

The Coast Guard had repeatedly inspected and certified the boat, called the Lady D, and granted it a license to cruise out to the fort in March 2003 - a license still valid at the time of the accident, according to records and Lt. Andrew Ely, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had approved the boat for 25 passengers, which was the number on board when it capsized, Ely said.

"This vessel was not out on the open ocean. It was on the Inner Harbor, and it has a license to operate in this area," Ely said. "If they had asked, `Can we take 25 passengers across the ocean?' the answer would have been no. But it was on the Chesapeake Bay, where it was authorized to be."

What remained unanswered one day after the accident was whether the boat's captain, weather forecasters or marine authorities could have better foreseen the force of the fast-moving, freakish storm that raced over the city in the midst of a mild afternoon and caught the vessel just as it was leaving its dock at the fort to cross the harbor to Fells Point.

The taxi was about 100 yards from shore and trying to turn back toward the dock at the fort about 4 p.m. when winds gusting as high as 45 mph flipped it over, tossing the 25 people into 44-degree waters.

NTSB investigators spent much of the day interviewing the boat's captain, Francis Deppner, 74, a retired Army major from Middle River, at the Fells Point campus of the Living Classrooms Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Seaport Taxi, one of two taxi services in the Inner Harbor.

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