Water shuttle changes ordered

Coast Guard tells service to cut passenger load 25%

In response to deaths in harbor

Foundation told to modify 2 pontoon boats for safety

April 29, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Less than two months after a fatal water shuttle accident in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard has ordered the owner of Seaport Taxis to cut maximum passenger loads by about 25 percent to make the boats safer.

In addition, the Guard has directed the Living Classrooms Foundation to modify two of its pontoon boats by moving the floats farther apart to improve stability, said Lt. Joe DuFresne, chief of small passenger boat inspections for the Baltimore regional office.

The foundation has also taken the optional step of installing weather radios in each of its nine Seaport Taxis.

"As a result of the casualties, we wanted to make sure everything is done correctly and that we feel comfortable with the rest of the fleet," DuFresne said in an interview yesterday.

On March 6, a fast-moving storm - with wind gusts exceeding 50 mph - capsized the 36-foot water taxi Lady D as it carried 23 tourists from Fort McHenry toward Fells Point.

Members of a nearby U.S. Naval Reserve station plunged into the water and saved most of the passengers, but five died in the frigid waters, including a 6-year-old boy.

Survivors were scheduled to have their first reunion since the accident during a memorial ceremony with the Navy reservists and others this morning at Fort McHenry.

"Obviously, this accident has had an emotional impact on the Seaport Taxi staff, and the larger organization, the Living Classrooms Foundation family," said James Piper Bond, president of the foundation. "This organization is based on compassion and helping people, and so that's what we are going to continue to do."

Since the accident, the Seaport Taxi service has made several changes to operate more cautiously and monitor weather more closely. The shuttles have not been making their longest run, out to Fort McHenry, in part because the pier at the fort is being repaired.

Those routes could resume next week, Bond said. But the foundation will no longer use its smallest class of boats - the size of the 8-by-36-foot Lady D - to travel that longer, sometimes choppier run.

The Lady D was badly damaged and will no longer operate. And the foundation has decided to take its sister ship, the Patricia P, off the water, as well, Bond said.

A third pontoon boat of the same size, the W.B. Morgan, will be limited to a shorter and more protected route, between Canton and Fells Point, and will not venture out to Fort McHenry, Bond said.

Weather warning

More than 24 hours before the Lady D capsized, the National Weather Service put out a small-boat advisory warning of possible heavy weather and winds of more than 20 mph.

Since the accident, foundation officials have met with their captains and stressed the importance of watching the weather carefully, Bond said. Officials have posted guidelines at the helm of each boat, saying they should not operate in winds exceeding 25 to 30 mph.

In addition, the foundation has installed weather radios in each water taxi for alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to Coast Guard documents.

The lead captain on the water will also have a laptop computer on his boat, with a wireless connection to the Internet, which he or she will use to monitor online weather reports, Bond said.

"We have moved the first line of our response from the shore to the vessels, and we have re-emphasized weather monitoring," Bond said. "This was not a requirement, but the Coast Guard blessed it."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fatal accident and probably won't issue its report until next year, said Lauren Peduzzi, spokeswoman for the federal agency.

The Coast Guard's role does not include determining the cause of the accident, and its decision to limit the number of passengers on the other Seaport Taxis should not be interpreted to mean that the Lady D was overburdened, said DuFresne.

"There is no evidence that the vessels were unstable, but in light of events, we wanted to use the most conservative estimates of passenger capacity," Du- Fresne said.

This month, the Coast Guard retested the stability of most of the foundation's boats at Anchor Bay Marina in Dundalk.

Four never had tests

Four of the boats - the Lady D, the Lady B, the Eagle and the W.B. Morgan - had never been given stability tests, Du- Fresne said.

These tests, which require the placement of barrels full of water on extreme positions around the boat's deck, are designed to predict if a boat will capsize during a storm or when passengers' weight suddenly shifts.

The four boats were never tested because the Guard certified them as safe during a period in the 1990s when it used a now-outdated system. That system allowed the certification of one boat if a similar-sized - or "sister" vessel - had passed a stability test, DuFresne said.

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