The captain of the Seaport Taxi that capsized Saturday in Baltimore harbor is a Vietnam veteran well-regarded in his Baltimore County riverside community as an avid waterman and sensible, skilled boater, those who know him say.
Francis "Frank" Deppner, 74, spent much of yesterday on the waterfront campus of the Living Classrooms Foundation at the edge of Fells Point, where he was interviewed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Deppner declined to talk to reporters, saying the NTSB told him not to, but later issued a statement of condolence to passengers and families.
Officials are just beginning their investigation into the accident, which killed one passenger and left three missing in the first fatal water taxi incident since the popular ferries arrived in the harbor more than 20 years ago. Deppner was trying to head back to the dock when a sudden squall moved through, creating gale-force winds that flipped the boat.
James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said Deppner has been working for the foundation as a captain since July 2002.
"Frank is a wonderful man who was a major in the U.S. Army for 28 years, someone who has worked very hard and is very dedicated," Bond said. "And he's come through a very difficult time in the last day. He's pulled upon his experiences in Vietnam to help get him through."
Others vouched for his good-sense boat handling. A search of public records shows Deppner has been the registered owner of two boats in Maryland, a 39-foot Bayliner and a 33-foot Sea Ray.
"The man was more than capable, and I can guarantee that if he wasn't at the helm, more people would have perished in this tragedy," said Ron Reynolds a boater from Middle River.
Kenneth A. Barrick, who lives near Deppner in the upscale Fairwinds community in Middle River, said Deppner has spoken about how much he enjoys his job as a water taxi captain.
"He loves being on the water," Barrick said. "I think he really enjoyed just getting out and talking to people."
Barrick, a scuba diver, said he once asked Deppner to help with an Inner Harbor diving expedition. While Barrick dove, looking for a part that had broken off a sailboat, Deppner stayed on their rubber raft, making sure Barrick came up safely.
"The gentleman's very knowledgeable," Reynolds said. "I wouldn't mind being on any vessel he was captain of."
Deppner and his wife moved to Fairwinds in 1997, soon after it was built on a Middle River peninsula between Frog Mortar Creek and Gar Gut. Like most there, the Deppners have their own boat and spend much time on the water, neighbors said.
The couple has also been involved with the community's neighborhood association. Janet Deppner edited the "Fairwinds Flier," while Frank Deppner served on the board of directors until resigning last summer.
"He's a really committed person," said Stephanie Kovalick, who worked with Deppner on the neighborhood board. "He's been very committed to this community."
On Saturday, when word of the capsizing began to spread, many in the neighborhood thought immediately of Deppner, said Tina Mason.
"We were wondering whether it was Frank," she said. "We were all huddled around the TV, praying for him."
Around 11 p.m., television cameras caught a glimpse of Janet Deppner walking into a hospital. That's when Mason and the others knew their neighbor was involved.
"We just need to pray for him so he can realize that this is not his fault," she said.
Sun staff writers Scott Calvert and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.