`Deep sorrow in my heart,' says captain of water taxi

Fifth day of search for three passengers who are missing is futile

Harbor Tragedy

March 11, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

As a cold, steady wind whipped the Patapsco River into a froth of white-capped waves yesterday, the shaken captain of the capsized Seaport Taxi faced a phalanx of microphones and television cameras at Fort McHenry.

Francis "Frank" Deppner had not spoken publicly of Saturday's fatal accident since the water taxi he was piloting was overturned by a sudden blast of gale-force winds hundreds of yards from where he stood on shore yesterday.

Behind him, fireboats plied the waters off Fort McHenry in search of three missing tourists who boarded Deppner's boat Saturday for what was to be a quick trip back to Fells Point.

With tears welling in his eyes and a quiver in his voice, the 74-year-old retired Army major from Middle River expressed "deep sorrow" for those who are dead and missing. He said his "heart goes out" to those who, like him, survived the city's first fatal water taxi accident, which plunged 25 people into the frigid harbor.

"Their lives changed, and my life did, too," Deppner said, reading from a statement. "Many of us are lucky to be alive.

"I have deep sorrow in my heart."

Then he was gone. Officials from the Living Classrooms Foundation, owner and operator of Seaport Taxi, whisked Deppner behind a wrought-iron fence and into the fire station at Fort McHenry.

Deppner's brief statement punctuated a fifth futile day of recovery efforts by Baltimore Fire Department divers, who descended only once yesterday to search for the three passengers whose bodies are thought to have sunk to the Patapsco River's murky bottom

Missing are 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va.; Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill.; and Andrew M. Roccella, also 26, of Virginia, who was soon to become her fiance.

Confirmed dead are Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., who died after being pulled from the water Saturday, and her 34-year-old daughter, Lisa Pierce of Lyndhurst, N.J., who died late Monday after 2 1/2 days in critical condition.

Sarah Bentrem, Daniel's 8-year-old sister, was in critical condition at University of Maryland Medical Center yesterday. The children were on an outing with their parents and another sister, all of whom survived.

The divers made their one 50-foot descent yesterday near sunset, shortly after Deppner spoke. The dive aimed for an object identified by a small, unmanned, remote-controlled device lent by a private company, Tyco Telecommunications, which docks two ships in Baltimore. The device is typically used for laying cable along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The search, like all those performed by divers since Saturday, turned up only debris.

"It was not a body," said Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

Tyco's 400-foot-long ship, from which the remote-controlled device is deployed, dwarfed the 30-foot-long fire rescue boats that have been towing sonar through the water since heavy winds flipped the Seaport Taxi vessel, the Lady D, about 4 p.m. Saturday.

A rapidly moving thunderstorm struck the 2-ton Lady D shortly after it left its Fort McHenry dock. Gusts flipped the boat as Deppner attempted to steer it back to shore after receiving late-arriving storm warnings from the National Weather Service.

Rescuers from a Naval Reserve Center and the city's fireboat unit responded within minutes and pulled 22 people from the water.

Deppner has been cooperating with fire officials' recovery efforts and with federal investigators' attempts to figure out why the boat capsized.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are examining engineering drawings of similar craft.

Investigators are also trying to determine the accessibility of life jackets and whether the captain offered them to the passengers, an NTSB official said. A full report is due in one year.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. expressed slight frustration yesterday that NTSB officials had not alerted his department to their 30-minute retracing of the Lady D's path Tuesday.

He added that NTSB investigators are "cooperating fully."

Seaport Taxi did not operate yesterday but was planning to resume service today between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. It will not make stops at Fort McHenry, said James Piper Bond, president of Living Classrooms Foundation. Bond decided to limit service to avoid interfering with recovery efforts and out of deference to victims' relatives.

Recovery efforts are expected to be aided today by better weather and what Goodwin described as a classified military device being delivered this afternoon. The device will replace Tyco Telecommunications' bottom-roving, infrared sonar device.

The discoveries this week of the Lady D's canopy and other pieces of the boat that remain underwater have steered recovery efforts farther north of Fort McHenry and closer to the Canton shoreline, where the search is expected to continue today.

Goodwin said new witness reports indicate that the Lady D might have capsized as little as 100 yards from its Fort McHenry dock.

"It is not surprising that it continues to change," Goodwin said of the estimated location of the capsizing.

Firefighters have called the recovery efforts frustrating. Firefighter and diver Sean King Sr. said one object thought to be the body of a child turned out to be a clump of boat rope.

"I act as if I'm looking for my own child," said King, a father of five. "I want to help these families get closure.

"We're going to find them."

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