A Grim Search Continues

In the storm, saving lives was reservists' sole concern

Harbor Tragedy

Rescue Effort

March 08, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Drenched and freezing, the survivors atop the capsized Seaport Taxi had a desperate message to relay. As they were pulled to safety by a team of Navy rescuers, they yelled, "There's kids underneath! There's people underneath!"

Within moments, the Navy reservists, who were aboard a landing craft similar to the ones used on D-Day almost 60 years ago, maneuvered their boat's mechanized ramp under the water taxi and lifted it up. As they did, three people appeared in the brown water - a man, a woman and a child.

"Once that boat lifted up, the bodies just floated up," Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King said 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."

The scene Saturday after the boat capsized was as harrowing as the scene just before. Passengers who just minutes earlier had been enjoying a water taxi ride amid mild weather found themselves struggling to stay alive after a gale-force wind suddenly rocked the boat and tipped it over.

"At first it just seemed like a dream, or a nightmare," said Eric Jahnsen, 25, who along with his fiancee survived by climbing onto the bottom of the overturned boat. "As soon as it went on its side, the water started rushing in very quickly. We all were just kind of [like] laundry in the dryer."

Jahnsen, a Mount Holly, N.C., resident who was in Baltimore on business, said he and other passengers were tossed to one side of the boat as it tipped and were crushed against the glass windows. Some of the windows broke under the weight of bodies.

"Everybody on the starboard side of the boat jumped over to the port side to accommodate for the tipping of the boat," said Jahnsen, who quickly found himself underwater and desperately searching for a way out. "I started feeling along the walls. ... It seemed like I was pushing on a wall, and all of a sudden, it opened."

Jahnsen said he saw other passengers surface above the water around him, and heard his fiancee, Sarah Kernagis, 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 the Navy Reserve vessel came to their rescue.

It was then that King and the other reservists dove into the 44-degree water in their street clothes and boots. Their efforts, along with those of a dozen other reservists, saved the lives of 21 of the 25 people aboard the Seaport Taxi that capsized in fierce winds off Fort McHenry.

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."

When the water taxi capsized about 4 p.m., one of the reservists witnessed the accident from the nearby shore and called 911. Seconds later, shouts of "Boat flipped over! Boat flipped over!" echoed through the reserve's three-story, red-brick building tucked behind Fort McHenry. Almost 20 reservists, in town for weekend exercises, rushed to the steel ACU2-27 landing vessel, which is 72 feet long and 21 feet wide. There was no time to grab diving gear.

The reservists got to the water taxi less than 20 minutes after it capsized and threw a rope and life vests to the survivors huddled atop the vessel. Other victims were hanging onto the side of the taxi and a few were floating in the water.

"We had four guys pulling on the boat to get them close enough, and at that point we started grabbing victims to pull them aboard," Romano said.

The reservists took off their jackets and gave them to the victims, some suffering from hypothermia and some already unconscious. They gave CPR. The victims received raincoats and life vests for warmth, whatever was handy.

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