Harbor taxi's canopy found

Robot: A remote-controlled device produces clear video, confirming discovery.

Harbor Tragedy

March 13, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

More private companies and the U.S. Navy assisted the Baltimore Fire Department yesterday in its seventh day of searching for three missing passengers of the capsized Seaport Taxi.

A new robotic device produced clear video yesterday of what officials said was the boat's canopy in a location far from where earlier search efforts had found what was then believed to be that piece of the boat, officials said.

The video, viewed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, also showed a cell phone, a horn from the boat and the tan and green colors of the Seaport Taxi canopy.

"It looks like TV footage," O'Malley said of the video taken by what he called a "robot as big as a small dog."

The 8-pound device was provided by SeaTrepid Inc. of Pottstown, Pa. The remote-controlled device was sent into the water yesterday to verify an object identified Thursday night by a sonar device lent by Marine Sonic Technology, a White Marsh, Va., firm.

Divers made no descents yesterday. Last night, officials said, tow boats nudged a barge carrying a tall crane above the location where the canopy was found 30 to 40 feet below the surface. Crane operators expect to attempt to pull the canopy to the surface today.

There was still no sign of the three missing passengers of the overturned boat, the Lady D. A rapidly moving thunderstorm struck the 2-ton pontoon boat shortly after it left its Fort McHenry dock about 4 p.m. Saturday. Gusts flipped the boat as its captain, Francis Deppner of Middle River, attempted to steer it back to shore after receiving 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.

The three missing are 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va.; Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill.; and Andrew M. Roccella, 26, of Virginia, who was soon to be Schillings' fiance. Sarah Bentrem, Daniel's 8-year-old sister, remained 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.

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.

The mayor said the search would continue as long as Fire Department Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. determined that the recovery efforts were making progress. O'Malley said he and Goodwin had not discussed at what point to call off the search.

"As long as we're making progress we're going to keep going," O'Malley said.

Recent search efforts have been aided by an underwater robotic rover lent by Tyco Telecommunications. The company launched the rover from its 460-foot long ship that is typically used for laying fiber-optic cable in the ocean.

The device and other sonar equipment helped identify three objects that were thought to be bodies. They were found in a location north of the fireboat station, from where the Lady D left its dock on Saturday. A canopy-shaped object had been found in the same vicinity.

However, divers examining the objects found only debris.

But Tyco Telecommunications' device identified 14 other objects through Thursday night. The SeaTrepid robot, operated from the surface, was able to confirm with clear video that one of those objects was the canopy on Friday, officials said.

The canopy's location, however, was much farther south than where recovery efforts had been focused Thursday, which was north of the fireboat station some 100 yards from the Canton shore. Yesterday, the robotic device confirmed the canopy's location as being near where the channel dumps into the wider part of the Patapsco River. Officials said that was the approximate location where Lady D had drifted after its passengers were rescued.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators want to recover the canopy to aid their inquiry. And fire officials believe that its location could also provide a clue about where the bodies might be.

Throughout the day, a small Navy ship cruised the waters off Fort McHenry towing a sophisticated, classified torpedo-shaped sonar device. There was no indication that the Navy ship's device had turned up any helpful evidence. It patrolled as far south as the Key Bridge. Fire officials did not explain why the ship was ranging so far afield from earlier search efforts.

The search's shifting range has been caused by varying accounts from witnesses, said Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

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