Wind, waves doomed water taxi

The water taxi that overturned in Baltimore's Inner Harbor on March 6, 2004 - killing five passengers - was too unstable and heavy to withstand a hit by what its captain called a "spiral of wind" and a "wall of water," federal investigators said in a report released yesterday.

The National Transportation Safety Board's "engineering and stability report" said a simulation of the winds and waves that caught the pontoon boat Lady D between Fort McHenry and Fells Point showed the vessel capsizing within a minute in each of the 20 times the test was repeated.

The report on the water taxi's stability was part of a release of documents and pictures yesterday that included transcripts of often-dramatic testimony by the Lady D's captain, mate and passengers. Among other things, the mate said that Seaport Taxi, the vessel's owner, nearly had a similar accident two years previously.

A spokeswoman for the NTSB would not comment on the testimony or the panel's report. The agency has yet to complete its investigation or reach conclusions about who, if anyone, is to blame. The spokeswoman, Lauren Peduzzi, said the final report will probably not be released until spring 2006 - more than six months later than previously expected.

Still, the factual findings of the panel that examined the stability of the vessel indicate that the U.S. Coast Guard could face severe criticism of its standards and vessel certification procedures.

The report pointed to continuing disagreements between the NTSB and the Coast Guard over the urgency of revising standards and procedures for ensuring that commercial boats aren't carrying too much weight.

Copies of the depositions released yesterday also show divergences in the accounts of the captain and the mate of the water taxi.

Francis O. "Frank" Deppner, the captain, told investigators on the day after the accident that shortly after leaving the Fort McHenry pier, just before 4 p.m., the boat was hit by winds whose strength he estimated at 70 knots - near the high end of the range suggested by the U.S. Weather Service.

According to Deppner, he received a warning from a senior captain about severe weather headed his way just after casting off from the pier. He said that rather than trying to make it to Fells Point, he attempted to reach a closer haven near the Bay Cafe in Canton.

But the sudden wind was much too powerful, he told investigators.

"I still tried to turn into the wind, but there was no turning, the boat just seemed to not do anything. And for a while, it almost seemed like the wind was beginning to turn the boat almost in a circle," Deppner, then 74, said, according to the transcript.

"I am not sure if the boat went all the way around once or not. I suspect maybe it did. And then the wall of water seemed to still be there and the boat just tipped to the side."

Deppner, mate Michael Homan and 23 passengers ended up in the frigid waters of the Inner Harbor - some trapped under the boat. Five would die - including a 6-year-old boy and a 26-year-old couple planning to be married.

Homan gave two statements to investigators - one the same day as Deppner and another in October 2004.

In the October statement, Homan said he had learned in the intervening months about an incident before he was hired in which a similar Seaport Taxi vessel, called the Revenge, had been "influenced by the wind" and blown against the dock at the Baltimore Maritime Center near the site of the Lady D accident.

His report of the earlier accident was confirmed in another deposition given by Andrew Murray, director of the Natural Historic Seaport of Baltimore.

Homan's account of the accident differed from Deppner's in key respects.

Where Deppner said he was trying to reach the Canton marine center, Homan told investigators it appeared to him that the captain was attempting to return to Fort McHenry.

Deppner and Homan also differed in their recollections of the passengers' actions in the moments just before the capsizing.

Homan said the passengers switched sides of the boat twice in attempts to level it off - once on their own initiative and once at his instruction just as the boat turned over.

But Deppner recalled that the passengers were seated. "There was no shifting of people from one side of the boat to the other," he said.

Within the hundreds of pages of documents released yesterday, passengers and rescuers - some interviewed in hospitals the day after the accident - recount scenes of people trapped under water and attempts at reviving them.

Seaport Taxi ended its water taxi operations late last year, leaving Harbor Boating as the city's sole operator, after Living Classrooms - the nonprofit foundation that operated Seaport Taxi - decided to get out of the business.

The foundation's move came less than a month after it reached an undisclosed legal settlement with passengers on the boat and their survivors. Claims were filed on behalf of 24 of the 25 people aboard the Lady D - all but the captain.

After the accident and before the company closed, the local U.S. Coast Guard office ordered Seaport Taxi to reduce the capacity of its vessels.

Last December, the NTSB reported that the Lady D was carrying 700 pounds of excess weight at the time of the accident. The agency noted that the Coast Guard had used 1960s-era estimates of the average weight of the population to set capacity limits.

Reflecting the increasing heaviness of American men and women, the passengers aboard the vessel were an average of 28 pounds heavier than the Coast Guard benchmarks.

The NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard take immediate action to bring its weight estimates and capacity limits up to date.

The issue of weight and boat capacity came up again this week in the NTSB's preliminary investigation into the fatal capsizing of a tour boat on Lake George in New York. Twenty of the 48 people aboard the boat, which had a maximum capacity of 50, were killed.

Josie Shifflet, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the Coast Guard recently issued a contract to study the impact of revising its boat capacity standards to account for the weight issue. She said the report is expected next September.

Shifflet said the agency is moving carefully because the changes could affect up to 20,000 vessels across the country.

"Because of the widespread impact, we must do a thorough and careful review of all the factors involved, giving the industry and public opportunity to comment," she said.

Shifflet added that the boat that sank in Lake George fell under state regulation, not Coast Guard rules.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com For archived coverage of the water taxi accident, go to baltimoresun.com/watertaxi

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