Divers recover bodies of 2 victims

Man, boy found near spot where `Lady D' capsized

search continues today

Harbor Tragedy

March 15, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Divers working in bitter winds and frigid water yesterday recovered the bodies of two of the three tourists lost nine days ago when the Seaport Taxi Lady D capsized in a sudden gale off Fort McHenry.

Baltimore fire officials said the remains of Andrew M. Roccella, 26, of Vienna, Va., and Daniel Bentrem, 6, of Harrisonburg, Va., were found in about 60 feet of water, only a "couple of hundred feet" from where rescuers pulled the rest of the passengers from the Patapsco River on March 6.

The bodies were taken to the medical examiner's office. From there, they were expected to be released to their families.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. expressed hope yesterday that the recoveries "will allow the families to have their grieving time, their funerals. ... Hopefully, that's what we have achieved here today."

As he spoke, a sonar search resumed the effort to locate the body of Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Washington. Roccella had intended to propose to her that weekend, family members said.

If promising targets are found, city Fire Department divers could be ordered into the water again today, Goodwin said.

"I believe we will be successful in our third attempt," he said, "and then our job will be complete."

The Lady D, a 36-foot pontoon boat, was caught by a powerful gust and capsized March 6 while attempting to return to its Fort McHenry dock after encountering a fierce squall. The boat had left the dock only moments earlier, headed for Fells Point with two crew members and 23 passengers on board.

As passengers and crew fought their way to the surface and clung to the overturned boat, personnel from the nearby Naval Reserve Center rushed to their assistance in a landing craft. Risking their lives, the reservists pulled 22 people from the 44-degree water. They revived three passengers and one rescuer who had stopped breathing.

Two of the passengers recovered that day died. Joanne Pierce 60, of Vineland, N.J., was pronounced dead at the hospital. Her daughter, Lisa Pierce, 34, of Lyndhurst, N.J., died March 8.

Sarah Bentrem, 8, Daniel's sister, remained in critical condition last night at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said yesterday's search began with sonar scans of the Northwest Branch near the Rukert Terminals in Canton. The scans identified two objects near the shipping channel that looked promising to sonar operators working for Tyco Telecommunications, which has donated its services.

The nine-day search has turned up many such objects that later turned out to be tree stumps or other harbor debris. In all, recovery teams have made close to 30 dives into the murky water.

But this time, closer examination by a video-equipped robotic search vehicle provided by SeaTrepid Inc. of Pottstown, Pa., confirmed the finds.

Fire Department divers then entered the water and recovered Roccella's body at 2:24 p.m. They found Daniel's body 114 feet away, and lifted it from the harbor at 4:16 p.m.

The search and recovery work yesterday was carried out despite stiff, bitterly cold southeast winds. The winds and currents complicated the operations of the Tyco sonar equipment and the remote-controlled vehicle used to verify the sonar finds.

At least eight fire and police boats maneuvered in the windy channel between Fort McHenry and the Canton piers. Their work attracted scores of onlookers throughout the day. Most watched solemnly from the fort's bulkhead for as long as they could endure the wind and cold.

The first signs that the search may have led to a recovery came about 2:40 p.m., when a city police boat led two small Fire Department boats to a pier several hundred yards west of the city fire boat dock. Five minutes later, an ambulance on that pier pulled away.

The boats then returned to the search area. About 4:30 p.m., the scene was repeated, and this time a white van pulled away. The recoveries were not announced to waiting reporters until about 5:15 p.m., after family members had been notified.

Cartwright said the marine recovery effort has been the most extensive in local memory, and certainly the longest in Goodwin's 28 years with the city Fire Department, which included several years on the department's dive team.

The high-tech equipment from Tyco and SeaTrepid increased the hope of success and kept the search going.

Cartwright said city divers have never failed to find and recover a body. "If we can assist the families by recovering their family members and returning them," he said, "we would like to bring closure to the families."

The costs of the operation have been "very limited," he said, thanks to the donations of much of the search technology, and of food and hotel space by local hotels and restaurants.

Fire Department recovery workers have been working regular shifts or volunteering their time, he said. "Their only obligation in being here is their own personal commitment. I can't commend them enough."

Mayor Martin O'Malley spent much of his day with recovery workers yesterday. During the morning, Cartwright said, the mayor went on board the 400-foot Tyco Decisive, a fiber-optic cable-layer based in Baltimore, to observe the sonar search. He was on shore later as Fire Department boats carried the recovered bodies to shore.

At one point, only minutes after the second body was recovered, O'Malley could be seen making the sign of the cross. And he stood on the city fire boat dock to greet the Special Rescue Operations teams and other recovery workers as they returned to shore.

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