Safety board to examine use of life jackets

Harbor Tragedy

March 08, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Investigators are "very interested" in whether the captain of the water taxi that capsized in Baltimore's harbor Saturday told passengers to put on life jackets in the moments after he was warned that winds were quickly becoming too dangerous, authorities said last night.

"We haven't interviewed all of the passengers yet, but that is one of the questions were are very interested in: `Were they wearing life jackets? Were jackets ever offered? Did they receive a safety briefing?'" said Lauren Peduzzi, spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The 36-foot pontoon boat, called the Lady D, had passed inspection with the Coast Guard and was carrying enough life jackets for the 25 passengers on board, according to a Coast Guard spokesman and the organization that owns the boat, the Living Classrooms Foundation.

But whether the captain, Francis Deppner, advised the passengers to put on life jackets in the final moments, when a gale force wind arose, is not clear, said Peduzzi. She would not comment on whether a missing 6-year-old child on board the boat was believed to be wearing a jacket.

Even if the passengers weren't wearing jackets, that wouldn't appear to be a violation of Maryland law, officials said. The law does not require adults to wear life jackets and requires them for children under the age of 7 only on recreational boats under 21 feet, such as kayaks, sailboats and rowboats, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The boat that flipped was 15 feet longer than the law specifies and was a commercial vessel.

"Children are not required to wear life jackets on commercial vessels," said Petty Officer Brian Poole, a coast guard spokesman.

Investigators are also looking at other questions, including why the boat went out despite a small craft advisory for possible high winds, Peduzzi said.

Ron Morgan, former owner of Harbor Shuttle, which sold the Lady D and eight other boats to the Living Classrooms Foundation in 1998, said yesterday that the 36-foot-long pontoon boat was too small and unstable to make the journey to Fort McHenry.

"This kind of boat was designed for lakes, rivers and flat, still water. It can get really nasty out there near Fort McHenry," said Morgan, who became embroiled in a bitter and failed lawsuit against the foundation after claiming breach of contract. "That should have been a 48-foot boat going out there. That would have had a lot more stability."

Lt. Andrew Ely, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said that inspectors had examined the boat several times and reviewed the route it routinely took to Fort McHenry. The inspectors found no significant problems.

"The boat was given a certificate of inspection. The master of the vessel had a license, and that master is expected to exercise good judgment," Ely said.

James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said he felt confident that the boat was safe. He noted that it had two licensed captains on board, one more than the law requires.

"The Coast Guard inspected that boat and approved it for that use," Bond said. "This microburst just kind of came up out of nowhere. One of our captains said that the wind went from nothing to gale-force winds in, like, 5 minutes."

A day before the accident, the National Weather Service put out a small-boat advisory warning of possible heavy weather, and that warning was still in effect Saturday.

But the Seaport Taxis were not the only boats on the water Saturday afternoon. Their competitors, run by Ed Kane's Water Taxi, were also running their routes around the harbor, said Cameron Kane, owner of the Water Taxi company. She said that supervisors ordered their boats to return to shore at 3:40 p.m. The Seaport Taxi capsized at 4:01 p.m.

"We watch the weather constantly, and we err on the side of safety," Kane said.

Coast Guard records show that in the five years before the capsizing, inspectors found minor problems on the Lady D, including loose bolts, a missing part on a fuel system and cracked welding on a boarding ladder. But they were all fixed, and the boat was repeatedly judged seaworthy by the Coast Guard, records show.

The Lady D, which weighed 2 tons and had a 90-horsepower engine, was built in 1996 by Susquehanna Santee Boatworks of Pennsylvania. It had been involved in two minor accidents in recent years, neither of which involved serious injury.

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