Deep Commitment

Divers who searched the frigid, murky harbor after the Seaport Taxi tragedy put duty before all else.

March 17, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Water is ordinarily a firefighter's friend.

But for the team of Baltimore Fire Department divers who plumbed the muddy, near-freezing depths of the Patapsco River over the past two week period after the fatal capsizing of the water taxi Lady D, the water was a treacherous, demanding foe.

No amount of monthly dive training in pools, quarries or reservoirs could have fully prepared the volunteer dive team for the dangers it faced during the 10-day effort of 12- to 14-hour days to recover the bodies of three Seaport Taxi passengers lost in the waters off Fort McHenry.

From the day of the capsizing, March 6, until Monday, when the last of the three bodies was recovered, the Fire Department divers repeatedly jumped into the frigid, swirling waters, descending in zero visibility to a mushy, silt-covered bottom. They battled numb limbs and burst eardrums and tested their nerves as they rooted through the mire in the slim, and grim, hope of locating the missing. Even their welcome returns to surface were fraught with risk, as they maneuvered around a tricky cable connected to the underwater robotic rover whose sonar images told them where to search.

"You're risking your life going down there," said Kenneth Hyde, a dive team member since 1993.

But again and again they went, until all the victims were accounted for.

The first in the water after the taxi capsized was not a diver, but Robert Sebeck, the man who pilots the team's boat.

He and his partner were on the first fire boat to reach the overturned Lady D. Their target: a woman passenger who was floating face down in the water nearby.

Wearing only a life vest, Sebeck jumped in. He hoisted the unconscious woman up by the back of her pants and attempted to climb back on the fire boat. But the boat's ladder snapped, sending him and the victim back into the water. A police boat arrived and guided the woman to a nearby Naval vessel, where reservists began CPR.

A shivering Sebeck finally made it aboard his boat and promptly collapsed. But he quickly regained his strength when a Naval reservist shouted that they had "a little girl in full [cardiac] arrest," Sebeck said. It was 8-year-old Sarah Bentrem. He and his partner raced her to shore; today, she remains in critical condition at University of Maryland Medical Center.

Her 6-year-old brother, Daniel, was not as fortunate. He and two other Lady D passengers -- Corinne Schillings, 26, of Washington, and Andrew Roccella, 26, of Vienna, Va. -- were the only three water taxi passengers not recovered from the water that day.

Finding the missing was now the divers' mission. But they had no idea what they would be up against.

Harsh conditions

`"Most of our training is in 30 to 40 feet of water," said Phil Bildstein, a diver for 14 years. The focal point of their search, the Northwest Harbor of the Patapsco River, went as deep as 70 feet in places. Its mid-March temperature: 36 degrees.

Some of the divers used scuba equipment; they dove with tanks attached to their backs and masks strapped to their faces. Most of them, however, performed what they called "helmet diving," entering the water wearing 80-pound suits that covered everything but their heads and hands.

To breathe, they clicked on a helmet that was attached to a line delivering air from tanks stored on their boats. For their hands, they slid on specially equipped gloves connected to their suits. Often, the frigid water seeped into the gloves, numbing their hands.

With flippers over their feet, divers would step off the back of a boat and follow the cable that attached Tyco Telecommunications' hulking 400-foot ship to the company's sonar-equipped, bottom-roving robot.

Given the conditions, most dives lasted 20 minutes to 30 minutes. In the disorienting, murky water, most divers would descend with their eyes closed. Some hummed as they descended. "You can't see anything," Bildstein said. "It's like looking through a pot of coffee. You can tell there's light on the other side but you can't distinguish anything."

The cord to the robot below carried 3,000 volts of electricity, but it also provided a guide for divers, who would follow it down and land on the 8-foot-tall device at the bottom of the Patapsco. The harbor currents, though, frequently twisted divers' lines around the cable causing snags that prevented an easy return to the surface.

That's what happened to Bernard "Bean" Muller.

On Saturday, March 13, Muller made a dive to investigate a shape that officials thought might be one of the missing passengers.

Muller, 46, has been with the Fire Department for 24 years, and a diver for longer. His descent was fairly typical. But once on the bottom, Muller's dive took an extraordinary turn: the shape located by the sonar was indeed a body. He had located Corinne Schillings.

What happened next exemplified the difficulty -- and danger -- of the recovery mission.

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