Lady D's survivors rely on faith, work

As the NTSB readies its report, those who endured the 2004 water taxi sinking have found their own answers to the tragedy


HARRISONBURG, VA. -- Two years and a day after the water taxi Lady D flipped over in the frigid waters of Baltimore Harbor, the National Transportation Safety Board will meet in Washington on Tuesday to provide some long-awaited answers about what happened and why.

But here in the Shenandoah Valley, Dr. George Bentrem expresses only the mildest interest in the NTSB's findings about an accident that took the life of his son and left one of his daughters with severe damage.

"We're not looking for the answers in that report," he says. "I'm just going to leave that up to the NTSB."

Bentrem and his wife, Elizabeth, say they have found the answers they need in the Bible -- in verses such as the one from 2 Corinthians that assures them that "our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."

Their troubles would seem neither light nor momentary to most people.

While coming to terms with their loss of 6-year-old Daniel, the Bentrems have had to provide round-the-clock care for 10-year-old Sarah, who reclined immobile and voiceless through an interview with her parents and 9-year-old sister last week.

There is no guarantee that Sarah will ever get better, but her family clings to a hope as strong as their Christian faith.

The Bentrems, like the survivors of three other victims of the Lady D accident, agreed to talk with The Sun about how they have dealt with their grief in the two years since a sudden squall blew in from the west and caught the pontoon boat on its run from Fort McHenry to Fells Point on March 6, 2004. Five of the 25 occupants of the heavily loaded craft were killed.

Tom Pierce of Vineland, N.J., lost his wife of 37 1/2 years, Jo Ann, 60, and his 34-year-old daughter, Lisa.

Denny and Karen Schillings of Homewood, Ill., lost their 26-year-old daughter, Corinne.

Edward and Eileen Roccella of Vienna, Va., lost their 26-year-old son, Andrew, who had just bought an engagement ring to present to Corinne Schillings. He was their only child.

The Roccellas declined through their lawyer to be interviewed for this article, but the Bentrems, the Schillingses and Pierce all say they have rebounded and moved on with their lives.

For all, the formula for recovery has involved faith, love and work -- but for each in different measures.

Tom Pierce has written a book about the power of love. The Schillings family has set up a foundation in Corinne's name to provide scholarships for young women who want to study abroad.

And the Bentrems have immersed themselves in their faith and their "church family" while attending to Sarah's every need and forming a "tag team" to attend sister Katy's soccer games.

None of the family members interviewed expressed anger or bitterness over the accident, which has raised serious questions about the handling of the boat, the management of the water taxi company and the regulatory diligence of the Coast Guard.

The tragedy gripped Baltimore for more than a week as divers struggled to recover three bodies that were swept away in the cold currents of the murky harbor. There was something about the accident -- coming without warning during an activity perceived as virtually risk-free -- that attracted national attention. It was a stark reminder that Baltimore Harbor is not an ornamental pond but an arm of the Chesapeake Bay that demands a mariner's respect.

The toll would have been much greater if not for a rescue effort by Navy reservists and Baltimore firefighters -- some of whom jumped into the icy water to drag passengers to safety.

Mike Homan, who served as mate on the Lady D the day of the accident, says he believes he was the last of the survivors to be pulled from the boat -- which had overturned and trapped him -- without permanent injury. He says he has gotten on with his life and doesn't have nightmares about the accident, though he doesn't go out on the water anymore.

"To me it's too much risk for the amount of money they pay. It kind of took the fun out of it," he says.

Homan, who lives less than two blocks from the water in Fells Point, remains grateful to the rescuers. He says he sees them around town sometimes and believes that some of them are finding it harder to come to terms with what happened than the people they saved.

His observation is true for firefighter Robert Sebeck and Navy Reserve Cmdr. Petersen Decker, who were briefly hospitalized after diving into the water to rescue the Lady D's passengers and crew.

Sebeck, a 25-year Fire Department veteran who helped pull Sarah Bentrem from the water, says he's haunted by the sight of her curly hair blowing in the wind.

"That image will never leave me," says Sebeck, 45. "It'll never be over. You don't see stuff like that and wake up in the morning and everything's hunky-dory."

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