Los Angeles Times

Wind, waves, twists of fate bring death

Sun Staff

Everyone wanted to get on the boat.

That was the dockside consensus at Fort McHenry as Seaport Taxi's Lady D approached from across the harbor. A darkening sky threatened rain, and the green-trimmed craft offered snug shelter. But there was room for only 23 passengers, meaning those toward the back of the line were out of luck.

The time was 3:45 p.m. It had been a capricious day, typical for March -- springlike one moment, blustery the next -- but for many in the crowd, there was plenty yet to do. For some, a trip to the aquarium awaited; for others, a dinner in Little Italy, a night on the town.

The hop across the gray-green channel to Fells Point would be one of the final crossings of a pleasantly busy Saturday.

Considering the dock's shoreline backdrop -- the rugged fortress to the left, its famous banner waving in a freshening breeze; a group of naval reservists to the right, carrying out their weekend duties -- the waiting assemblage might have been dreamed up by Norman Rockwell.

There was the doctor's family from the Virginia mountains, touring the waterfront attractions with their three young children; the four National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico, billeted in Washington and out to see a little history; the elderly couple from New Jersey, joining their daughter for sightseeing; and the young couple from North Carolina, engaged since Valentine's Day.

The one among them with the biggest plans for the weekend, however, was Andrew Roccella of Northern Virginia. He was on the verge of proposing marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Corinne Schillings. Their parents stood with them on the dock -- his knew; hers didn't -- and to stay on schedule, they had secured a prime place near the front of the line.

The Lady D drew closer in a foaming wake, and by now you could see the white hair of the captain at the helm, an elderly man who had come late in life to this job, an unlikely vocation if only because he had never learned to swim.

But another player in this drama, yet unseen, was also rushing to meet them. About 15 miles to the west, a line of storms packing the cloudburst fury of mid-July was blowing past Ellicott City with gusts reaching 52 miles per hour. Pushed by a cold front, it had come roaring out of Western Maryland like a tractor-trailer down Interstate 70.

In a mere quarter-hour, the blackened squall line would reach the Inner Harbor, announcing its arrival with stiffened flags and jangling mast lines. By then, the other passenger shuttles running that day were tied down at docks and bulkheads to ride out the storm in safety. Only the Lady D was still out in the channel, where a sudden blast of wind would soon turn both the boat and the day upside down.

At that moment, all the usual calculations of luck would change for everyone involved. The compartment that seconds earlier had offered welcome protection from the elements would turn into an underwater tomb.

The passengers left behind at the dock, feeling stranded before, would be counting their blessings. The summer-like dangers of lightning gave way to the wintry danger of hypothermia.

By nightfall, four people would be dead, one would be dying, and a sixth would be fighting to survive. Several others, including the boat's first mate, would owe their lives to fellow passengers and the naval reservists. The reservists would benefit from their own bit of luck, riding to the rescue on a ungainly craft that had returned to the harbor a week earlier.

It took a combination of missed opportunities, postponements, convention schedules and other quirks of fate to bring together the crew and passengers of the Lady D.

Andrew Roccella, Corrine Schillings and their parents had hoped to visit the aquarium about 3 p.m., where they would have been viewing sharks and dolphins while the storm rolled through. But big crowds meant they had to settle for tickets later in the day.

Corrine Schillings, 26, who ran the Web site for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, suggested the weekend trip to Baltimore after learning that her parents, Karen and Denny Schillings, would be visiting Washington. Her mother was attending a convention for Girl Scout executives.

Andrew Roccella, also 26, a technical writer with AC Technologies in Fairfax, had met Corrine while they were both studying abroad in Florence in 1998. His parents, Edward and Eileen, were easily able to join the trip to Baltimore because they lived near his apartment in Vienna, Va., the town where he grew up. Andrew was saving the marriage proposal for later in the weekend, when he planned to do things the old-fashioned way -- by asking Denny Schillings for his daughter's hand in marriage.

The Bentrem family -- George A. Bentrem II; his wife, Elizabeth; and their children, Sarah, 8, Katharine, 7, and Daniel, 6 -- had originally planned to come to Baltimore the previous weekend. But with a 175-mile drive to make from their home in Harrisonburg, Va., a forecast of cool and blustery weather had persuaded them to wait a week. When the skies cleared Saturday morning, giving way to sunny temperatures in the 60s, their decision seemed to have been perfect.

Fort McHenry was high on their list of priorities, in part because Elizabeth was home-schooling all three children and wanted them to brush up on their nation's heritage.

Joanne and Thomas Pierce of Vineland, N.J., traveled to Baltimore Friday night at the invitation of their 34-year-old daughter, Lisa. As director of student activities for the New Jersey Institute in Newark, she was combining business with pleasure, after volunteering to accompany a group of engineering students to a Baltimore convention.

Also combining business and pleasure were Eric Jahnsen, 25, and Sarah Kernagis, 23, both from Mount Holly, N.C.

Jahnsen, fleet manager for Sun Belt Rentals, which rents construction equipment, was in town for a Convention Center show by the National Truck Equipment Association. Engaged since Valentine's Day, the couple knew all about luck -- how it could turn horribly wrong in one instant, then amazingly fortunate in the next.

Five weeks ago, their SUV hit a patch of black ice, went into a spin, left the pavement and rolled over. Miraculously, she suffered only a strained muscle in her back and got some glass in her eye. He escaped with a few scratches.

But that was during a winter storm, when driving is always hazardous. Being out on a boat was another matter altogether. Both are good swimmers, as well as water skiers, kayakers and certified scuba divers. A short ride in a water taxi would be no cause for worry.

About the time the Lady D was approaching the dock at Fort McHenry, Zach Rogers was about two miles to the northwest, steering his water taxi out of the landing at Harborplace with a new load of customers. Rogers, 27, is vice president of operations for Ed Kane's Water Taxi, which competes along several routes with the Lady D's owner, Seaport Taxi.

As his boat pulled clear, he began to get a better view over the receding pavilions of the sky to the west, and he didn't like it. The clouds were turning black, and with winds already blowing at 20 mph and higher, it looked like things might soon get nasty. He figured the brunt of the approaching storm was two to five miles away, and closing fast.

So he radioed to the boat running the same route a few minutes behind him and told the skipper to sit tight once he reached the Harborplace dock.

Five minutes later, with the storm moving closer, Rogers radioed to the other two Water Taxi boats, telling them to seek shelter. By the time he reached Fells Point, rain was beginning to fall. Rogers tied up to the dock, prepared to sit tight. The Lady D, meanwhile, was just departing Fort McHenry. It was about 3:50 p.m., and the storm was at hand.

The rain arrived only a few seconds after the boat left the dock, but all the windows were shut, keeping the passengers dry. Within minutes, the downpour was torrential.

At the Naval Reserve center next to the fort, Master Chief Melvin Johnson, 58, stood near the dock with Vincent Scardina, the boatswain mate chief senior. A huge thunderclap had just shaken their building, and now they watched the storm creeping up the channel toward a lone boat, an eerie gray curtain of wind and rain that made Johnson think of The Twilight Zone.

They watched the boat losing ground to the storm about 300 yards offshore. It seemed to be trying to reverse direction, or perhaps heading for shelter at the Canton piers.

"Oh, my God," Johnson said to Scardina. "What's he doing out there in this weather? He's not gonna make it."

In the next instant, a green pontoon rose up out of the water like the outrigger of a heeling sailboat.

On board the Lady D, skipper Francis O. Deppner had just heard the belated bad news on the radio. The way his son, Marc, would relay the story later was that Deppner knew he had to get to the shore as quickly as possible, to any of the wood or stone bulkheads that line much of the harbor like the walls of a giant bathtub.

As a 28-year veteran of the Army, a retired major with Bronze and Silver stars for valor, he had been in rougher places. But on those occasions, he was always surrounded by fellow soldiers. This time, there were families to look out for, children and elderly.

Deppner, 74, had come late to this life on the water, a non-swimmer who took up boating about 12 years ago, loved it, then began studying for a pilot's license, earning it in April 2002.

His first mate had been around boats his entire life. Michael R. Homan, 55, was a competent sailor by his early teens. Later, he got a sailboat of his own, and when the economy slowed a few years back, he decided to get out of the business of computer consulting to work full time on the water. He, too, had earned a pilot's license and was within days of earning his first skipper's job with the Living Classrooms Foundation, the owner of Seaport Taxi. The job was close to home. He and his wife, Peggy, lived a block from the Fells Point waterfront.

As the storm approached and winds rose, Homan told the passengers to put on the life jackets stowed beneath their seats, according to a later account offered by his brother, Marc, who spoke with Homan after the accident.

By his account, some of the passengers laughed, apparently thinking Homan must be joking.

But no one was laughing when the Lady D's pontoon came up out of the water on the left, or port, side. The full force of the wind had arrived.

As the boat tipped violently, passengers on the starboard side instinctively rushed to the opposite side, trying to act as ballast. The boat settled back onto the rising chop, and the passengers went back to their seats.

Jahnsen, seated with his fiancee, heard either the captain or the mate shout that they were trying to reach a bulkhead, and the boat began to turn. Then another blast of wind hit, and the boat's left side again tilted upward, more violently than before.

Some passengers screamed. A man seated on the left side flew out of his seat with the rocking motion of the boat and slammed into Kernagis, who rammed the window. The force of the blow burst through the plastic, tossing Kernagis and the man out into the harbor, where the water was 44 degrees.

For a fleeting moment, they must have seemed like the two unluckiest people on the Lady D. But then the boat kept on going, onto its side, and then flipping belly up. Water rushed through windows that had been smashed open by impact, and the people inside suddenly found themselves in the murk of the harbor. The floor was now the ceiling, blocking out what little daylight remained in the darkness of the storm.

Brown water quickly filled up the chamber, and those who could took a last, deep breath, then prepared to swim for their lives or to probe for any way out.

But, for Homan, the first mate, the darkness was already complete.

As the boat overturned, something struck his head, knocking him woozy. He swallowed water, he felt himself losing consciousness, and he realized with regret that he might never get a chance to say goodbye to his Peggy.

On shore at the Naval Reserve dock, Master Chief Johnson ran inside to call 911 and told Scardina to do the same on his cell phone. Scardina went to find the keys for ACU2-27, the 72-foot-long troop deployment ship docked about 50 feet away. It didn't look like much -- a 6-ton, lidless shoebox with a raised wheelhouse, plus a tilted ramp that raises and lowers like a drawbridge.

But they were lucky to have it at all. The boat had been back in port only about a week, returning from its annual winter overhaul in Annapolis.

A hodgepodge crew of 19 clamored aboard: enlisted men, reservists, a few Navy recruiters who happened to be in the building, plus a couple of adult supervisors who were visiting with a contingent of high school Sea Cadets. Among the men who went along were Scardina, Cmdr. Petersen Decker, Petty Officer 1st Class David Romano, Lt. Cmdr. Art Eisenstein, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King.

Some worried that the engine wouldn't start, but it roared immediately to life for Scardina. The boat approached the overturned Lady D from the west, but high wind and heavy seas were making their job tougher.

The tide was coming in, but the wind of the storm was only further riling the chop. The Lady D's pontoons were floating south, toward the mouth of the harbor. It was a moving target.

Below in the submerged Lady D, passengers and crew were fighting for their lives, and a few were losing the struggle.

Some swam up, others down, and still others probed the walls and windows for openings in the darkness. Kernagis, thrown clear, sat on a pontoon, eyeing the waters for her fiance.

Jahnsen felt along the walls -- pushing, pushing, until something came free. He was out, bumping a hand on the propeller as he reached the surface. He heard Kernagis, calling for him, and clambered aboard.

The four National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico -- Master Sgt. David Blakeley, and Staff Sgts. Antonio Acosta, Alejandro Gonzales and Luis Nazario -- kept their heads, sliding open one window and smashing open another. Gonzales couldn't even swim, but there he was, breaking free, asking for one last breath so he could again see his children.

Blakeley was the last one out. Barely. He was almost out of breath, thinking of his wife, his friends, lungs about to burst. Then he saw a light, moved toward it and was suddenly on the surface, his comrades nearby.

Karen and Denny Schillings made it out. So did Edward and Eileen Roccella. But where were the Schillingses' daughter and the Roccellas' son? Surely wherever they were, it would be together. But neither had yet appeared above the water.

Thomas Pierce was also looking for loved ones, having somehow made it to the surface. But where were Joanne and Lisa?

Deppner, like the Guardsman Blakeley, also saw some sort of light ahead as he floundered in the murk, according to an account relayed by his son. He, too, thought he wasn't going to make it, but he broke into the light of day.

The fortunes of George Bentrem's family were not to be as happy, according to an account relayed later by Frank Bentrem, George's uncle, of Elizabethtown, Pa.:

George grabbed onto his two youngest children, 6-year-old Daniel and 7-year-old Katharine. He pulled them with him, swimming for an opening. In the murk, he saw his wife, Elizabeth, still wearing his coat, which he had given her on the boat when she became chilly. Sarah, 8, was somewhere else beneath the submerged deck.

Bentrem, a strong swimmer, reached for his wife to pull her with them to safety, wanting to save them all. But as he did so, the swirling current pulled Daniel away. The threesome surfaced, looking for the son, and then for Sarah. But the only other heads bobbing at the surface were those of strangers.

Then, more quickly than most people in such a situation could have expected, help arrived.

The Navy's ACU2-27 was about 50 yards from the Lady D when Commander Decker began to hear men and women screaming for help over the roaring sound of the sea, the wind and the engines. Decker, a lanky 6-foot-3, could see over the high walls of the boat. He spotted people on top of the upturned taxi, some in the water clinging to the sides.

Scardina had the engines in reverse and was inching toward the taxi. About 20 feet from the wreck, he lowered the bow ramp. Decker noticed a middle-aged man atop the inverted hull shouting, "There's two girls still in the boat!"

Was the man in shock, Decker wondered? Or did he know what he was talking about? Decker decided to believe him. Raincoat and all, he stepped overboard, and as he hit the frigid water, his mind flashed back to a lifesaving merit badge he had earned as an Eagle Scout. He had learned a lesson then: how to enter the water without losing sight of the victim. Keep your head above water or risk being lost in the maelstrom of murk and undertow.

But the shouting man atop the hull was pointing down toward the side of hull. Was a window there? A door? Decker went under about 3 feet, holding onto the side of the boat with one hand, groping for an opening with the other. He could feel something like plywood and began to kick. He opened his eyes, but it was too dark to see. He relied on touch and hearing, hoping against hope that someone would knock back, trapped in an air pocket.

He took about 20 plunges, finally kicking open a hole, venturing farther inside until hearing his shipmates call him back: Scardina was going to try to lift the hull, using the bow ramp as a lever.

A few minutes after the hull was raised, three people floated to the surface. None was conscious. One of them, 60-year-old Joanne Pierce, was already in cardiac arrest and would not survive. The second, 8-year-old Sarah Bentrem, would be shipped quickly to medical help ashore. The third, a man who was probably Andrew Roccella, was swept into a swirl of current and lost to the rescuers.

Blakeley, who among the four Guardsmen had come closest to perishing, had now gone on the offensive, turning rescuer along with his three comrades. He swam down, hoping to find one of the children whom the mother was shouting for. Instead, he felt a foot, grabbed it, and called to the others. They pulled out first mate Homan, knocked out cold and turning purple. They performed CPR, got him breathing.

Meanwhile, Romano, one of the naval reservists who had remained on the rescue craft, had been hauling in survivors like fish with a thick mooring rope, his heart thudding. One woman clung to the hull, screaming that her arm was broken. But the only way they could pull her aboard was by the arms.

Decker by now had been in the water for 10 minutes. He breast-stroked toward the ramp but was losing control of his arms and legs. They felt like flippers. Romano hauled him in, saw bleeding from multiple small cuts. Ten minutes later, Decker was passing in and out of consciousness. Romano wondered whether his commander would even make it back to shore.

But there were more people to retrieve from the water, and one was unconscious, a woman. It was Lisa Pierce, and several men struggled to haul her aboard, grappling and heaving. The moment she reached the deck, Romano saw someone begin administering CPR. To his amazement, it was Commander Decker.

On shore, and around the city, word was spreading of the fate of the Lady D. But Peggy Homan, wife of the first mate, was out in Fells Point, taking the opportunity now that the storm had passed to walk the dog.

She happened to pass a corner bar just down the street from their house where the door was propped open. Inside, a TV was blaring, and the words caught her attention. A water taxi had overturned in the Inner Harbor. Peggy Homan headed quickly for home.

James Piper Bond also hadn't yet heard the news. He is the president of Living Classrooms, the boat's owner. With his wife out of town, Bond had planned a fun day with their 4-year-old son, Piper. They rode bikes to a playground in Roland Park, then had to pedal home fast in the teeth of a furious storm.

When the sun emerged a few minutes later, Bond pointed out for his son a remarkable thing: a rainbow, spreading across the sky. They decided to head to the Inner Harbor for pizza, maybe a boat ride. Then he checked the messages on his cell pone: One of his boats had gone down. He and Piper headed quickly for the harbor, but their plans had changed.

Back on the hull of the Lady D, Jahnsen and Kernagis also saw the rainbow. It was big and bright, but offered no solace.

At the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, workers fielded a call about 4:30 p.m. from the City 5 ambulance. A child had been involved in a drowning, and there was an overturned water taxi. The signal broke up, then disappeared. A few moments later, charge nurse Sheila Gilger looked up at her TV monitor and saw a girl being wheeled in through the front door. It was Sarah Bentrem, and her father was with her.

Gilger's unit swung into action as if someone had flipped a switch, just as it is accustomed to doing several times each day. Lights on, crash cart in place with its emergency drugs, heart monitor and defibrillator, plus 10 or so doctors and nurses.

The little girl had been under water for 10 to 15 minutes, a doctor later would tell a relative. She had, quite literally, drowned. But drowning in cold water isn't always fatal. The treachery of hypothermia also comes with a certain sorcery of survival, for seemingly unearthly periods of time.

So the team went to work, revived her and worked furiously to warm her up.

As of yesterday, she was still in critical condition and unconscious. Doctors have told the family that she might yet fully recover, a relative said.

But young bodies stand a better chance in such circumstances. Lisa Pierce, at 34, never recovered. She died Monday, two days after the accident. The bodies of the young couple and of the Bentrems' son have not been recovered.

On Thursday, five days after the accident, images were still playing in rescuer David Romano's mind liked looped film, a movie without an end. He can't forget Lisa Pierce's lambskin-soft, stone-cold hands. He remembers a drenched and shivering father who was huddled inside the rescue boat telling him, "My son's under the water, but don't worry. He's a good swimmer."

But for all its tragedy, Master Chief Melvin Johnson still marvels at the things about the rescue that succeeded. "You never know what a person has in them till they're put to the test," he says. "You couldn't have scripted a movie like this."

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