A grim search continues

In five minutes, a mild afternoon is transformed into a nightmare

Harbor Tragedy

Rescue Effort

March 08, 2004|By Laura Loh and Stephen Kiehl | Laura Loh and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Eric Jahnsen and his fiancee boarded the Lady D Seaport Taxi late Saturday afternoon with mild skies overhead and Fells Point a short ride away. Five minutes later, they and 23 others on the water taxi were fighting for their lives in dark, frigid water off Fort McHenry.

"At first it just seemed like a dream, or a nightmare," said Jahnsen, 25, a Mount Holly, N.C., resident who had come to Baltimore on business. "As soon as [the boat] went on its side, the water started rushing in very quickly. We all were just kind of like laundry in the dryer."

Jahnsen and his fiancee, Sarah Kernagis, turned out to be two of the lucky ones in a capsizing that became the city's first fatal water taxi accident, in which one person died and three others remain missing. Moments after a gale-force wind suddenly rocked the boat and caused passengers to be tossed through windows and into walls, Jahnsen somehow struggled to the surface.

"I started feeling along the walls," he said, describing how he couldn't see as the water surrounded him. "It seemed like I was pushing on a wall, and all of a sudden, it opened."

Jahnsen said he saw other passengers surface around him, and heard his fiancee call out to him from atop the hull of the overturned boat.

The couple and other passengers stood on the hull, up to their knees in water, and waved their arms at the shore and yelled for help. They also huddled for warmth in the cold rain. Jahnsen said it felt like about 10 minutes before a Navy Reserve vessel came to their rescue.

Jahnsen said he had not realized that there were fellow passengers who had not resurfaced until people started yelling and the Navy reservists began diving into the water. "They're real heroes," he said. "They're amazing. Many of them were giving us the coats right off their backs."

`There's kids underneath'

Among the rescuers was Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King, who along with 20 other reservists had arrived on the scene aboard the Navy's steel ACU2-27, a 72-foot-long, 21-foot-wide emergency vessel. The first words they heard from the drenched and freezing passengers on the water taxi's hull were, "There's kids underneath! There's people underneath!"

Within moments, the Navy reservists used their vessel - similar to landing crafts used on D-Day almost 60 years ago - to maneuver the boat's mechanized ramp under the water taxi. Within seconds, the ramp hoisted up the capsized taxi, revealing three people floating in the water - a man, a woman and a child.

"Once that boat lifted up, the bodies just floated up," King recounted yesterday at the Naval Reserve Center near Fort McHenry. "The first body went by real quick. And then I saw the little girl, and I jumped off."

King and the other rescuers dove into the 44-degree water in their street clothes and boots. Their fast action saved the little girl King helped rescue from underneath the boat. She and a woman were resuscitated; but the third victim, an adult male, was swept away by the current and was presumed dead last night.

"The current was so bad - it was just banging us against the ship," King said of being in the water. "You couldn't see anything. You couldn't hear anything. And I just saw the bodies. It was terrible."

Yesterday, after receiving medical treatment and counseling, the reservists talked about first seeing the taxi in trouble from the Naval Reserve Center, watching it bounce violently in the choppy water, and then rushing to the rescue after it flipped over.

"You don't do it to be a hero. You do it because it's your natural instinct," said Petty Officer 1st Class David Romano, one of the rescuers. "We were all scared to death, but we didn't have any regard for our own safety. We concentrated on making sure the victims were pulled out of the water."

Jahnsen, one of the first survivors to give a detailed account of the minutes leading up to and after the tragedy, said the early afternoon started out pleasantly on Fort McHenry. But there was a strong wind when the passengers boarded the Seaport Taxi.

He said he does not remember hearing the captain give safety instructions, though he had heard the same captain announce the location of the life preservers before his trip from Fells Point to Fort McHenry earlier in the afternoon.

According to Jahnsen, rain began falling hard about 10 seconds after the boat left the dock. But the water was not very choppy at the time, and the boat continued away from land.

After what felt like 5 minutes or more, Jahnsen said, the wind picked up, and the boat began rocking wildly. By that time, the vessel was far into the harbor and at a great distance from the shore, he said.

As the boat was tossed, the captain or his first mate announced that there would be a change in course. "The only thing I remember him saying was that he was going to try to find a bulkhead" on the shore, said Jahnsen, who was standing at the rear of the boat and said he could not see who was speaking.

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