A fierce gust of wind flipped over a crowded Seaport Taxi off Fort McHenry yesterday, leaving one dead and three presumed drowned as federal safety officials began an investigation into Baltimore's first water taxi fatalities since the boats began cruising the harbor more than two decades ago.
The accident occurred within sight of two teams of rescuers - Naval reservists on a training exercise and firefighters assigned to the city's fire boat unit - who pulled victims from the 44-degree waters shortly after the pontoon boat operated by Seaport Taxi flipped about 4 p.m. as it carried 25 people.
Late into the night, three police and Coast Guard helicopters soared over the Inner Harbor looking for signs of the missing people, and several rescue boats slowly trawled the waters, with beacons shining on the surface. Rescuers planned to continue searching through the night, but they said they did not expect to find survivors, given the cold water.
"The physiological aspects of someone surviving in the water for three hours is pretty slim to none," Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said.
Tourists and members of the Puerto Rico National Guard were among those aboard the 36-foot boat, which was about 100 yards off shore and turning toward the dock when the wind overtook it, officials said.
"There's a microburst coming through the harbor," a captain on shore radioed the boat's captain shortly before the accident, said James Piper Bond, president and chief executive officer of the Living Classrooms Foundation, an educational nonprofit agency that owns the boat. "He immediately went to the shore."
But the boat didn't make it, capsizing in "a freak burst of wind," Bond said.
"It just rolled over," said U.S. Naval Petty Officer Edward Mendez, who was on the second floor of the Naval Reserve Center at the fort when he saw the accident. "Ten of our guys went into the water to rescue the passengers. A couple guys just dove in - no wet suits."
A woman in her 60s, pulled from the water shortly after the accident, died at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. An 8-year-old girl was in cardiac arrest but was revived and was undergoing surgery last night at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, police said.
Two victims were in critical condition. It was not clear if the 8-year-old was one of the two.
First taxi fatalities
Authorities said the fatalities were the first associated with Baltimore's water taxi service, which was established in the late 1970s just before the revitalization of the city's Inner Harbor. For a $6 fare, passengers are ferried around the harbor to such destinations as Fells Point, and Fort McHenry.
The tragedy on the taxi line left many witnesses shocked.
"I was down along Boston Street fishing this afternoon, when all of a sudden this real strong wind came up. I thought to myself, 'This is no time for boaters to be out there,'" said William Bishop, a 62-year-old retired homebuilder from Dundalk. "Then I heard people screaming, 'There's a boat that's turned over out there! There's a boat turned over!'
"Then I saw a police boat come in, and they carried a woman on a stretcher and put her into an ambulance," he said. "It looked like she only had a little blouse on. It didn't look like she was dressed for the weather."
Bishop drove from Boston Street to Fort McHenry to see what had happened to the rest of the passengers.
Captain 'pretty rattled'
Among those rescued were the boat's captain and first mate. Capt. Francis Deppner, 74, of Middle River told authorities that he had just called the Coast Guard to report the number of passengers and his destination of Fells Point when a thunderstorm swept into the area, said Maj. Fred Bealefeld of the Southern Police District.
"Without warning a strong wind grabbed the craft, and the next thing they knew, they were in the water and they had no time to put life vests on," Bealefeld said. "There wasn't even time for that. This is such a tragedy, a horrible tragedy."
Bealefeld said Deppner appeared "pretty rattled" by what happened.
The National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene last night to take charge of the investigation. Agency chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said the investigators will focus on four factors: operations, engineering, human factors and survivor factors. She also said weather was likely "one of the key factors" in the accident.
Conners also said the Red Cross had set up two telephone numbers to provide more information for victims' families: 410-764-8681 and 410-764-8690.
Bond, of Living Classrooms, said Seaport Taxi will suspend service at least for today "out of deference to the families."
But for a few hours after the accident yesterday, Seaport Taxi, which operates about 10 water taxis around the harbor, was still running its service. It halted operations later in the night. The yellow-and-green taxis, popular among tourists, have 25 to 60 seats, with life jackets under each.
Bond said that there are life vests on every vessel and that a safety talk is standard practice before each boat leaves the dock. Coast Guard officials said the boat passed an inspection last March. Bond said it was due for another inspection tomorrow.
"She was ready for an inspection on Monday," he said. "It was all ready for inspection on Monday and in the shape she should be."
Ron Morgan, former owner of Harbor Shuttle, sold nine pontoon boats to Living Classrooms four years ago. The boat involved in the accident was 36 feet long and 12 feet wide - a size that he believes is too small to cross the harbor.
"That boat should never have been out there today," said Morgan, who is involved in a lawsuit over financial matters with the foundation. "We would use that between Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, never across the harbor to Fort McHenry, especially if it's rough."
Bond said there was no truth in Morgan's statement.
"Mr. Morgan carries a lot of animosity toward the foundation, and he recently had a frivolous lawsuit against us that was thrown out of court. That should be taken into account," Bond said.
The accident occurred just off the coast from the Naval Reserve Center and the city's fire boat station. It happened on a weekend when naval drills were taking place, so 200 naval personnel were on hand.
Many of them initially mistook the emergency for a drill, but they had boats in the water within three minutes, said Alfredo Serafica, an engineer first class.
"I saw people running, and they were running to my boat," he said. "But the engine room was locked, so I ran for the key."
The Navy rescuers were the first to arrive, and they pulled eight to 10 people from the water, fire officials said.
Some Navy personnel stayed on shore and helped care for survivors who were brought back to the base.
"One of the crew members was crying," Serafica said. "He pulled out an 11- to 12-year-old girl, and she wasn't breathing. When the ship pulled into the marina, I thought it was only one girl. And then the ship pulled in again and there were 12 [people]."
Serafica and others on shore ran to their lockers for clothes to put on the drenched passengers, who were taken to a gym at the naval center.
"I gave away all the socks in my locker, rain jackets, uniforms, you name it," he said.
'You guys did great'
Reservist Fred Combs stripped off his Navy jacket and wrapped it around a man who had been plucked from the water.
"You guys did great. You made it. You're OK," Combs recalled telling the rescued, who he said were in such shock that they did not sense the cold of the water.
"The rescue workers said it was really cold," Combs said. "But some of the victims said they couldn't tell if it was cold or not."
Members of the Puerto Rican National Guard who were visiting Baltimore as tourists were among those on the boat, Combs said.
Officials were notifying relatives of the dead and injured last night.
Frank Kernagis, 64, was at home in Raleigh, N.C., when a social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital called to let him know that his 23-year-old daughter, Sarah, had been involved in the accident but was doing fine.
A few minutes later, he said, Sarah called from the hospital to say that she and her fiance had survived the accident in good shape."
"It could have been a lot worse," Kernagis said. "She was pretty calm."
Small craft advisory
Boaters in the upper part of the Chesapeake Bay and in Baltimore Harbor had been warned to expect rough weather yesterday. A small craft advisory had been issued at 4:30 p.m. Friday, "and it remained in effect through the time of the incident," said Steve Rogowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.
Shortly before 4 p.m., about the time the boat capsized, the weather service issued a short-term forecast for scattered showers and isolated thunderstorms with wind gusts to 45 mph.
Bond said the Seaport Taxis went out despite a small-craft advisory warning of 20-knot winds because the pontoon boats are designed to handle winds of that speed. The problem, he said, was the much stronger and unexpected gale-force winds that came up later yesterday afternoon.
"It was 70 degrees and a beautiful day. This storm came out of nowhere," Bond said.
State law does not require people older than 7 to wear life jackets on boats of this kind, Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet said. The law also requires that boats have enough life jackets on board for all passengers, she said. It was not known if any children younger than 7 were on the boat, she said.
When the storm hit yesterday about 4 p.m., all taxis on the water headed for the nearest stop, and the taxis at docks stayed put until the storm passed, according to taxi captains.
"We came in after the storm started and maintained our position," said Capt. Jim Nichols of Seaport Taxi, who was plying the harbor last night. Tourists continued to board the boats all night long, some unaware of the accident and others simply unconcerned.
Waleed Negm, 32, and fiancee Karen Crisafulli, 30, both of Silver Spring, boarded a Seaport Taxi last night after a dinner at the Rusty Scupper. "We've been getting phone calls from our family and friends asking if we're OK," Crisafulli said while aboard the taxi last night. "It does make you a little scared, but we're still riding it."
Sun staff writers Stephen Kiehl, Del Quentin Wilber, Tom Pelton, Johnathon Briggs, Reginald Fields, Frank D. Roylance and Jamie Stiehm and Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.