New Safety Rules Urged In Lady D Report

August 26, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

The Coast Guard's final report on the 2004 Baltimore Harbor water taxi accident that left five dead and one child with brain damage urges pontoon boat inspections and new stability standards based on heavier passengers.

The 63-page report and recommendations, which a Baltimore Coast Guard official acknowledged took "longer than we would like" to complete, says the Lady D capsized March 6, 2004, with a full load of 23 passengers and two crew because of a combination of bad weather, overloading, movement and direction of the 36-foot boat.

Cmdr. Brian Penoyer of the Coast Guard's Baltimore sector said "this was a very complex case" with "too many dynamic variables" to say if any one of an array of factors alone could have caused the vessel to flip over that Saturday afternoon.

If the report issued Tuesday took longer than usual, Penoyer emphasized that his agency did not delay in taking steps to make the country's passenger fleet safer. That effort, Penoyer said, is "well on the way" but not completed.

He played down his agency's conflict with the National Transportation Safety Board, which three years ago issued a report faulting the Coast Guard for using outdated passenger weight standards and for basing its judgment of seaworthiness not on the Lady D but on a similar boat.

Penoyer said the Coast Guard has a "fantastic relationship" with the NTSB, emphasizing that the two agencies have different missions: The NTSB focuses on accident investigation, the Coast Guard on establishing and enforcing safety regulations.

"We agree with the need to update weight standards," Penoyer said, adding that his agency three years ago issued an alert calling for new safety inspections of all passenger pontoon boats under 65 feet long based on average per-passenger weight of 185 pounds. The average weight of passengers aboard the Lady D on that trip was 168 pounds, well above the previous standard of 140 pounds, a figure unchanged in decades.

The report also calls for clarification of the rules on using the stability characteristics of one boat to assess the safety of another, similar one.

Until new mandatory regulations are made official, the revised weight standard remains voluntary, Penoyer said.

The Lady D was about five minutes into its 15-minute crossing from Fort McHenry to Fells Point when a squall rolled across the harbor from the west, with winds whipping gusts around 50 mph. While acknowledging that the weather changed quickly for the worse as the boat got under way, the report argues that the captain used poor judgment in leaving the dock.

The boat flipped over on its right side, spilling everyone into the harbor. Three passengers were found dead more than a week later and two others who were unconscious when pulled from the water died soon after at a hospital.

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