Harbor tragedy's heroes honored

Water taxi rescues earn reservists awards, praise

April 18, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Sometime during the rescue of 22 passengers thrown into the frigid waters of Baltimore Harbor from a Seaport Taxi, the rain stopped falling and the sun came out.

A rainbow suddenly arced from the Baltimore Naval Reserve Center to an aged, 72-foot troop deployment ship from which naval reservists held the feet of Petty Officer 2nd Class Jerry Neblett, who repeatedly stretched into the water to pull out those caught beneath the capsized Lady D.

Shivering later from hypothermia, the 24-year-old machinist said he couldn't get that rainbow out of his head. It stayed with him when he later met with the relatives of the victims of the March 6 accident.

"I spoke with the family of the 8-year-old girl I pulled out of the water," Neblett recalled yesterday. "Then it seemed real, seeing the families in their regular clothes. Then you realized these were the people you saved."

The sun was shining -- with temperatures finally spring-like -- as Neblett and 25 fellow reservists received medals and citations for their roles in rescuing the men, women and children who were thrown into the harbor by a sudden squall that overturned the 36-foot pontoon boat. Five passengers died.

At the awards ceremony, high-ranking Navy officials -- including Assistant Secretary Dionel M. Aviles -- joined members of Congress in honoring the men and women on weekend exercises who quickly became a cohesive team and rushed to the overturned craft. Speakers credited their heroism and quick thinking with keeping the number of casualties from climbing.

"Their efforts on that fateful Saturday are forever etched on my mind -- as is their collective bravery, teamwork and ingenuity," said Cmdr. James E. McGovern, the center's commanding officer. "I am awestruck by their actions -- but not surprised in the least. Our greatest asset is our people. If we train them, they'll be successful in any mission."

Capt. Carl Filer, a Navy chaplain, stirred the audience with an invocation noting that "water can be calm one minute and tempest-tossed the next." He said he knows the reservists "would gladly return their medals if it meant returning those five who were lost."

While Thomas Pierce, a passenger on the Lady D, was submerged in the ice-cold depths that day, he said he did not feel the cold or the fear or the urgency others must have felt. He thought of his wife and daughter, who were lost in the capsizing.

"I said to myself, this is the day the three of us go together. It was a peaceful feeling," said Pierce, who traveled from his home in Vineland, N.J., to speak at yesterday's ceremony. "But it was not my time to go."

Like many other survivors, Pierce was plucked from the 40-degree harbor waters by the reservists -- who on that day were wrapping up their training exercises near Fort McHenry.

"I was in total awe of each and every one of you," Pierce said, prompting a show of emotion from some of the sailors, who lowered their heads. "Your response to this accident was truly magnificent. I know all of you have been called heroes, but I'm going to say it a little bit differently. I would follow each and every one of you into battle. Thank you for being there that day."

His 60-year-old wife, Joann, and daughter Lisa, 34, were the first confirmed victims of the tragedy. The accident also claimed the lives of Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Washington; her fiance, Andrew Roccella, 26, of Vienna, Va.; and 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va. -- the brother of the girl Neblett rescued.

Their bodies were recovered after a seven-day search that involved 35 dives and nearly 80 members from the Baltimore Fire Department.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski delivered a spirited tribute, in which she commended the crew for "forming a human chain, lashed to each other, brother to brother," to pull survivors out of the water.

Among the links in that chain were Lt. Cmdr. Art Eisenstein of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Cmdr. Petersen Decker, Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Tate, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King and Neblett.

They received the highest awards -- the Navy & Marine Corps Medal -- for their multiple dives into the water. The medal is given for heroism in noncombat settings.

"It was definitely a life-changing experience," Eisenstein said. "It was the Navy's training at its best. Everyone responded. There was never any question of what to do."

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