Gathering of `true family'

Memorial: A ceremony reunites those on the capsized water taxi with their rescuers and honors those who died.

April 30, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

For 37 years, Thomas Pierce gave his wife a rose on the 13th day of each month - a monthly thanks for the day they married, Aug. 13, 1966.

On March 6, Pierce, his wife, Joanne, and their daughter, Lisa, were riding in a water taxi on Baltimore's Inner Harbor when the boat capsized in a sudden wind, killing mother and daughter.

He placed a rose beside his wife's casket. But the New Jersey computer programmer didn't want to stop giving out flowers. So when the next 13th rolled around, in April, he anonymously sent 60 roses to people who had been kind to him, including members of the U.S. Naval Reserve who plunged into the icy water near Fort McHenry to rescue him and 19 other survivors.

Pierce also sent flowers - without cards or explanations - to firefighters who offered him a hand, Red Cross workers who comforted him, journalists who wrote gentle words about his wife.

During a memorial service attended by more than 200 people at Fort McHenry yesterday, Pierce met with many of those who had shown bravery or compassion that stormy day and privately revealed that he was the one who sent the mysterious yellow roses.

"You all have my undying love, gratitude and admiration forever. You have all made a difference," Pierce told the crowd as the fort's huge American flag flapped in a blue sky and boats cruised past. "When there is so much to be admired, it becomes very difficult to feel the grief."

Yesterday's ceremony was marked by the soaring gospel singing of the Police Department choir, a solemn color guard of police officers and firefighters, and Pierce's two grandchildren, Kayla Cejkovsky, 3, and Emily Cejkovsky, almost 2, who frolicked in the grass in front of the stage.

The event was attended by Mayor Martin O'Malley, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. and Cmdr. Jim McGovern, leader of the Naval Reserve Center in Baltimore near Fort McHenry. It was from this center that about two dozen reservists jumped in a boat to rescue 20 of the 25 people dumped in the icy harbor waters when sudden winds capsized the Lady D a few hundred yards from shore. Five people died, including a 6-year-old boy.

The service yesterday was preceded by a private reception for survivors and Navy reservists. It was the first time that many of them had spoken since their fleeting encounter.

Some of the survivors said in interviews yesterday that they were glad to hear that Coast Guard officials revealed this week they had been working with the owner of the Seaport Taxi service, the Living Classrooms Foundation, to make safety improvements to the water shuttles.

The Guard reduced the capacity on most of the nine pontoon boats by about 25 percent and asked the foundation to move the floats of two of the vessels farther apart to make them more stable.

"I'm very glad that they're upgrading the safety standards on the boats," said survivor Greg Pettibon, 23, a real estate analyst from Gaithersburg. "It's just unfortunate that events like this have to take place to push forward changes."

Robert Williams, a 35-year-old engineer from Baltimore who survived the accident with his fiancee, Julia Lauer, said: "Any changes that are going to improve safety, we are absolutely all for."

James Piper Bond, president of the foundation, said yesterday that his organization "took the initiative" to improve safety after the accident, hiring a naval architect, Martin, Ottaway, Van Hemmen & Dolan Inc., to help the foundation investigate the accident. Based on the experts' advice, the foundation asked the Coast Guard to retest all the vessels, Bond said.

The Guard retested most of the boats April 14 to 16, reducing their capacity after checking them with a procedure more conservative than the one used in the 1990s to certify that the boats were safe. The foundation also volunteered to install weather radios in all the boats, Bond said.

Jeffrey King, a naval reservist at yesterday's event who helped rescue some of the survivors, applauded the safety improvements but said he doubted that a weather radio would have made any difference.

He recalled how varying the weather conditions were that day, with blue skies one minute, and then black clouds, thunder and rain suddenly appearing before the Lady D left the dock.

"It came up so fast, there was nothing anyone could have done," said King, 40, of Upperco. "The weather that day was nasty and unpredictable."

Pierce, who was hospitalized after the accident, wasn't much interested in talking about the safety changes or second-guessing.

"I had the pleasure of thanking the naval reservists who took part in that rescue," said Pierce, 60. "But there are many more of you who need to be thanked - police officers, divers, emergency medical personnel .... who treated me like true family."

He threw a bear hug around Bond, whose foundation owned the boat that turned over.

And he grabbed up his granddaughters, Kayla and Emily, one in each arm, as he looked out on the sparkling waters where his 34-year-old daughter and wife of almost four decades died.

Everyone who walked up to him received warm words and a reminder that his wife will always live in his memory.

"I sent you a rose," he said to several people. "Did you get a rose?"

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