Wind, waves, twists of fate bring death

Accident: Those left ashore as the water taxi shoved off felt unlucky, until a storm from out of the blue caused the `Lady D' to capsize in the frigid harbor.

Harbor Tragedy

March 14, 2004|By Dan Fesperman and Tom Dunkel | Dan Fesperman and Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Everyone wanted to get on the boat.

That was the dockside consensus at Fort McHenry as Seaport Taxi's Lady D approached from across the harbor. A darkening sky threatened rain, and the green-trimmed craft offered snug shelter. But there was room for only 23 passengers, meaning those toward the back of the line were out of luck.

The time was 3:45 p.m. It had been a capricious day, typical for March -- springlike one moment, blustery the next -- but for many in the crowd, there was plenty yet to do. For some, a trip to the aquarium awaited; for others, a dinner in Little Italy, a night on the town.

The hop across the gray-green channel to Fells Point would be one of the final crossings of a pleasantly busy Saturday.

Considering the dock's shoreline backdrop -- the rugged fortress to the left, its famous banner waving in a freshening breeze; a group of naval reservists to the right, carrying out their weekend duties -- the waiting assemblage might have been dreamed up by Norman Rockwell.

There was the doctor's family from the Virginia mountains, touring the waterfront attractions with their three young children; the four National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico, billeted in Washington and out to see a little history; the elderly couple from New Jersey, joining their daughter for sightseeing; and the young couple from North Carolina, engaged since Valentine's Day.

The one among them with the biggest plans for the weekend, however, was Andrew Roccella of Northern Virginia. He was on the verge of proposing marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Corinne Schillings. Their parents stood with them on the dock -- his knew; hers didn't -- and to stay on schedule, they had secured a prime place near the front of the line.

The Lady D drew closer in a foaming wake, and by now you could see the white hair of the captain at the helm, an elderly man who had come late in life to this job, an unlikely vocation if only because he had never learned to swim.

But another player in this drama, yet unseen, was also rushing to meet them. About 15 miles to the west, a line of storms packing the cloudburst fury of mid-July was blowing past Ellicott City with gusts reaching 52 miles per hour. Pushed by a cold front, it had come roaring out of Western Maryland like a tractor-trailer down Interstate 70.

In a mere quarter-hour, the blackened squall line would reach the Inner Harbor, announcing its arrival with stiffened flags and jangling mast lines. By then, the other passenger shuttles running that day were tied down at docks and bulkheads to ride out the storm in safety. Only the Lady D was still out in the channel, where a sudden blast of wind would soon turn both the boat and the day upside down.

At that moment, all the usual calculations of luck would change for everyone involved. The compartment that seconds earlier had offered welcome protection from the elements would turn into an underwater tomb.

The passengers left behind at the dock, feeling stranded before, would be counting their blessings. The summer-like dangers of lightning gave way to the wintry danger of hypothermia.

By nightfall, four people would be dead, one would be dying, and a sixth would be fighting to survive. Several others, including the boat's first mate, would owe their lives to fellow passengers and the naval reservists. The reservists would benefit from their own bit of luck, riding to the rescue on a ungainly craft that had returned to the harbor a week earlier.

Quirks of fate

It took a combination of missed opportunities, postponements, convention schedules and other quirks of fate to bring together the crew and passengers of the Lady D.

Andrew Roccella, Corrine Schillings and their parents had hoped to visit the aquarium about 3 p.m., where they would have been viewing sharks and dolphins while the storm rolled through. But big crowds meant they had to settle for tickets later in the day.

Corrine Schillings, 26, who ran the Web site for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, suggested the weekend trip to Baltimore after learning that her parents, Karen and Denny Schillings, would be visiting Washington. Her mother was attending a convention for Girl Scout executives.

Andrew Roccella, also 26, a technical writer with AC Technologies in Fairfax, had met Corrine while they were both studying abroad in Florence in 1998. His parents, Edward and Eileen, were easily able to join the trip to Baltimore because they lived near his apartment in Vienna, Va., the town where he grew up. Andrew was saving the marriage proposal for later in the weekend, when he planned to do things the old-fashioned way -- by asking Denny Schillings for his daughter's hand in marriage.

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