This is an overall view of the Pride of Baltimore memorial near… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Twenty-six years ago this month, Roma Foti's daughter, 23-year-old Nina Schack, was one of four crew members who lost their lives when the Pride of Baltimore, a replica of a 19th century sailing vessel, sank in a sudden storm in the Bermuda Triangle.
Foti has always found comfort, she says, knowing that a memorial to the lost stood in Rash Field on the Inner Harbor. That's why she felt so let down last fall when she visited the site and saw it was in disrepair.
Two panels bearing the names of the dead were four inches out of alignment, a corner was chipped off the facing, and two large cracks bisected a granite base nearby.
After Foti wrote city officials, and as The Baltimore Sun investigated the matter, the city announced Tuesday that it would partner with the nonprofit Pride of Baltimore Inc. to inspect the site and to help underwrite sufficient repair work to ensure the memorial is appropriately respectful of a tragedy that gripped Baltimore and the entire seafaring world in 1986.
"I'm part of just one of the many families touched by this event," Foti, 82, said in a phone call from her home in Bloomington, Minn. "But I was disappointed. I didn't want to make this about myself, but I wrote to everybody I could think of."
It took a while, but Foti has gotten results.
"We're committed to making sure this very important memorial remains every bit as dignified as it ought to be," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the office of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, adding that while the city hopes and expects the repairs to be "relatively minor," it also wants to take the time to locate the best-qualified stoneworking company for the job.
The Baltimore Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works with the city to provide economic development services, had recently inspected the site, O'Doherty said, and concluded that both the elements and vandals had caused the damage, leaving scars on a site that was built to preserve the memories of those who died and of a tragedy that many recall as one of the most dramatic in the city's history.
The story began in 1975 when the city — gearing up to revitalize its Inner Harbor — adopted a proposal from Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management for the construction of an exact replica of a historic 19th-Century Baltimore Clipper.
A maritime architect, Thomas Gillmer, designed the ship. Boatwrights crafted it with period tools and materials. Barbara A. Mikulski, then a congresswoman, performed the launching ceremony in 1977, and Mayor William Donald Schaefer commissioned the craft in May of that year.
The craft plied international waters for nine years, covering more than 150,000 miles while raising international awareness about the city whose reawakening it was created to symbolize.
With Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III at the helm, it was returning from an 18-month tour of Europe in the spring of 1986 when it entered a portion of the Bermuda Triangle 250 nautical miles north of Puerto Rico.
On May 14, a sudden and catastrophic storm — a "microburst" — hit. Winds of 80 knots (about 90 miles per hour) lashed the ship, capsizing it almost immediately.
Four crew members were lost: Elsaesser, 42; Schack, a Bryn Mawr School graduate who was taking time away from her studies at Cornell University; engineer Vincent Lazzaro, 27, of Connecticut, and carpenter Barry Duckworth, 29, of Maine.
The remaining eight spent the next 41/2 days floating in a half-inflated life raft with minimal provisions, signaling passing ships in vain. Some believe they were within a day or two of death themselves when a Norwegian tanker, the Toro, spotted and rescued them.
Word of the disaster reached Baltimore four days later when crew member Joe McGeady, then 26, called his home in Severna Park from the deck of the Toro and told his mother the Pride had sunk.
The news made local and national headlines, sparked an outpouring of public grief and eventually led to inquiries regarding the seaworthiness of a vessel that was — like the ships after which it was patterned — better suited for quick shifts of direction than maintaining stability in rough weather.
Survivors and the families of the crew members involved say the tragedy forged a lasting bond among them.
Ford Elsaesser, Captain Elsaesser's brother; McGeady and McGeady's older brother, Stuart, of Severna Park, and many others stayed in touch over the years, sometimes crossing paths on May 14, the date on which Pride of Baltimore Inc. holds an annual memorial service for the lost.
The memorial itself has always served as a comfort, says Ford Elsaesser, an attorney in Sandpoint, Idaho.
"It's such a peaceful place, so quiet right there in the midst of the city," he says of the site, which features the tall mast replica standing between two 14-foot-long banks covered with slabs of polished granite.
Rigging stretches from the stone bases to the top of the mast, a mute salute to those who gave their lives.