In the moments before the water taxi Lady D left the Fort McHenry dock on its fatal last voyage in March 2004, two of its passengers saw lightning in the sky, according to their statements to federal investigators.
Pre-departure lightning, which neither the captain nor the mate mentioned in their statements, would have been reason to stay at the dock under the stated policies of the boat's owner, Seaport Taxi, and the procedures followed by the city's other water taxi operator at that time.
Though there were other warning signs in the heavy winds and dark clouds, the Lady D cast off from Fort McHenry - only to capsize in a furious, sudden storm on the Baltimore Harbor minutes later, at the cost of five passengers' lives.
The report of lightning, apparently not seen by others on the boat, adds a new dimension to the question of what the crew of the Lady D knew or should have known before the boat left the fort for Fells Point.
Maritime veterans who have read the statement by the captain, Francis Deppner, to the National Transportation Safety Board said his words show that the skipper had ample reason to stay put, with or without the presence of lightning. Among other things, Deppner reported "very definitely dark" skies to the west less than a half-hour before he cast off.
"He shouldn't have left the dock," said John F. Nolen, a veteran commercial boat captain in Boston. Nolen, who read the statements at the request of The Sun, said that even without lightning, the conditions that the crew described made the departure too risky.
Captain's duty If lightning was in the vicinity, maritime authorities said, it was clearly the responsibility of the captain to keep the boat at the dock. They said the captain and mate are expected to scan the skies for signs of storms during unstable weather as was the case March 6 last year.
The two passengers who remembered the lightning did not say they reported the lightning to the captain or the mate, but other veteran seamen say the crew shouldn't have been counting on them to do so.
"You're supposed to be counting on taking care of your passengers," said John T. O'Brien, a retired naval captain and safety engineer who has been conducting his own inquiry into the Lady D accident.
The reports by passengers Robert Williams and Julia Lauer, who were traveling together, were the only interview transcripts reviewed by The Sun that mentioned spotting lightning from Fort McHenry. However, Jason Brown, a mate on another Seaport Taxi boat tied up at Fells Point - just across the harbor from the fort - reported "lightning in the immediate area" in the minutes before the accident.
Lauer, interviewed by the NTSB along with Williams two days after the accident, said conditions were "really windy" at the fort before they headed to the boat dock.
"I remember as I was getting on the boat, I remember I could see the storm to my left, and I saw lightning. I got on the boat," Lauer said in a transcript of her interview released last week.
Her companion recalled seeing skies darkening and lightning over the Inner Harbor at 3:45 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. that day.
Other survivors of the Lady D accident described conditions that included dark clouds hanging over the Inner Harbor to the west and strong wind gusts at the fort before departure.
Dr. George Bentrem, a Virginia physician whose 6-year-old son died in the accident, recalled seeing "a demarcation between sunlight and dark clouds" that led him to tell his wife "we really didn't want to be on that boat." Passenger David Blakely reported overhearing warnings on the captain's radio of 30-knot gusts before departure.
Others reported milder conditions. Sgt. Alejandro Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico National Guardsman visiting Baltimore, said three weeks after the accident that he never heard thunder and that "the weather looked fine" as the boat set out.
By most accounts, the boat pulled away from the dock at about 3:55 p.m., bound for Fells Point. It ran into trouble almost immediately after leaving the dock and capsized about 4 p.m.
Deppner, the Lady D's captain, declined to comment yesterday on the lightning report. He pointed to his March 7, 2004, statement, which does not report any sighting of lightning before he cast off.
Deppner, who said he still holds a Coast Guard license and is teaching boating for Baltimore County, referred further questions to James Piper Bond, chief executive of the Living Classrooms Foundation, owner of Seaport Taxi before the boat's operations were ceased late last year. A confidential financial settlement was reached with victims of the accident.
Bond could not be reached for comment.
Mike Homan, mate on the water taxi, said he did not see lightning before departure. If he had, Homan said, he wouldn't have boarded the vessel even under the captain's orders.
Coast Guard rules Leaving the dock with lightning present wouldn't have been a violation of Coast Guard rules, according to Baltimore sector spokesman Lt. Andrew Ely. "There is no regulation prohibiting any vessel from getting under way because there's lightning in the area," Ely said. Whether the action violated the terms of the Lady D's permit to make the trip to Fort McHenry in "reasonable conditions" will be determined in the NTSB investigation, he said.
Seaport's former competitor, Cammie Kane, president of Ed Kane's Water Taxis, said her boats routinely tie up at the first sign of lightning.
Kane said her company was not aware of lightning on the harbor the day of the accident. But she said her boats were tied up well before then because of concerns about the storm cell threatening the area.
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