Reservists' heroism saved lives

Eric Jahnsen and his fiancee boarded the Lady D Seaport Taxi late Saturday afternoon with mild skies overhead and Fells Point a short ride away. Five minutes later, they and 23 others on the water taxi were fighting for their lives in dark, frigid water off Fort McHenry.

"At first it just seemed like a dream, or a nightmare," said Jahnsen, 25, a Mount Holly, N.C., resident who had come to Baltimore on business. "As soon as [the boat] went on its side, the water started rushing in very quickly. We all were just kind of like laundry in the dryer."

Jahnsen and his fiancee, Sarah Kernagis, turned out to be two of the lucky ones in a capsizing that became the city's first fatal water taxi accident, in which one person died and three others remain missing. Moments after a gale-force wind suddenly rocked the boat and caused passengers to be tossed through windows and into walls, Jahnsen somehow struggled to the surface.

"I started feeling along the walls," he said, describing how he couldn't see as the water surrounded him. "It seemed like I was pushing on a wall, and all of a sudden, it opened."

Jahnsen said he saw other passengers surface around him, and heard his fiancee call out to him from atop the hull of the overturned boat.

The couple and other passengers stood on the hull, up to their knees in water, and waved their arms at the shore and yelled for help. They also huddled for warmth in the cold rain. Jahnsen said it felt like about 10 minutes before a Navy Reserve vessel came to their rescue.

Jahnsen said he had not realized that there were fellow passengers who had not resurfaced until people started yelling and the Navy reservists began diving into the water. "They're real heroes," he said. "They're amazing. Many of them were giving us the coats right off their backs."

Among the rescuers was Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King, who along with 20 other reservists had arrived on the scene aboard the Navy's steel ACU2-27, a 72-foot-long, 21-foot-wide emergency vessel. The first words they heard from the drenched and freezing passengers on the water taxi's hull were, "There's kids underneath! There's people underneath!"

Within moments, the Navy reservists used their vessel - similar to landing crafts used on D-Day almost 60 years ago - to maneuver the boat's mechanized ramp under the water taxi. Within seconds, the ramp hoisted up the capsized taxi, revealing three people floating in the water - a man, a woman and a child.

"Once that boat lifted up, the bodies just floated up," King recounted yesterday at the Naval Reserve Center near Fort McHenry. "The first body went by real quick. And then I saw the little girl, and I jumped off."

King and the other rescuers dove into the 44-degree water in their street clothes and boots. Their fast action saved the little girl King helped rescue from underneath the boat. She and a woman were resuscitated; but the third victim, an adult male, was swept away by the current and was presumed dead last night.

"The current was so bad - it was just banging us against the ship," King said of being in the water. "You couldn't see anything. You couldn't hear anything. And I just saw the bodies. It was terrible."

Yesterday, after receiving medical treatment and counseling, the reservists talked about first seeing the taxi in trouble from the Naval Reserve Center, watching it bounce violently in the choppy water, and then rushing to the rescue after it flipped over.

"You don't do it to be a hero. You do it because it's your natural instinct," said Petty Officer 1st Class David Romano, one of the rescuers. "We were all scared to death, but we didn't have any regard for our own safety. We concentrated on making sure the victims were pulled out of the water."

Jahnsen, one of the first survivors to give a detailed account of the minutes leading up to and after the tragedy, said the early afternoon started out pleasantly on Fort McHenry. But there was a strong wind when the passengers boarded the Seaport Taxi.

He said he does not remember hearing the captain give safety instructions, though he had heard the same captain announce the location of the life preservers before his trip from Fells Point to Fort McHenry earlier in the afternoon.

According to Jahnsen, rain began falling hard about 10 seconds after the boat left the dock. But the water was not very choppy at the time, and the boat continued away from land.

After what felt like 5 minutes or more, Jahnsen said, the wind picked up, and the boat began rocking wildly. By that time, the vessel was far into the harbor and at a great distance from the shore, he said.

As the boat was tossed, the captain or his first mate announced that there would be a change in course. "The only thing I remember him saying was that he was going to try to find a bulkhead" on the shore, said Jahnsen, who was standing at the rear of the boat and said he could not see who was speaking.

Immediately after the announcement, the boat began to veer right. Jahnsen said he was not sure whether it was because of the captain's steering or the force of the wind. Then it tipped. "Once it tipped, there were definitely screams," he said.

When the water taxi capsized about 4 p.m., one of the reservists witnessed the accident from the nearby shore and called 911. Seconds later, shouts of "Boat flipped over! Boat flipped over!" echoed through the reserve's three-story, red-brick building tucked behind Fort McHenry. Almost 20 reservists, in town for weekend exercises, rushed to the ACU2-27. There was no time to grab diving gear.

The reservists got to the water taxi less than 20 minutes after it capsized and threw a rope and life vests to the survivors huddled atop the vessel. Other victims were hanging onto the side of the taxi, and a few were floating in the water.

"We had four guys pulling on the boat to get them close enough, and at that point we started grabbing victims to pull them aboard," Romano said.

The reservists took off their jackets and gave them to the victims, some suffering from hypothermia and some unconscious. They administered CPR. The victims received raincoats and life vests for warmth - whatever was handy.

"Some of them were so cold that they couldn't hardly move. We had to lift them up. And once they got onto the landing craft, they collapsed," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Volkman. "One lady kept saying, 'My kids! My kids!' Another was bleeding from behind her ear. They kept telling us, 'There are people under there! There are people under there!' "

So the ramp of the vessel, which can descend for landings, was placed under the taxi to lift it up. The first person to float up was a man. The swirling waters carried him away before the reservists could reach him. They don't know what became of him.

Then, the rescuers spotted an 8-year-old girl drifting nearby.

Lt. Cmdr. Art Eisenstein, a jeweler who lives in Edgewater, jumped into the water and grabbed her. She wasn't breathing. He passed her to one of his shipmates, who was being dangled by his feet so he could reach the girl and pull her onto the boat.

The third person to float up after the boat was lifted was a woman. King, the petty officer, got hold of her and, with several others, pulled her up the ramp of the boat. She was foaming at the mouth and in cardiac arrest, but she lived.

"Once we saw the bodies, it was instantaneous, we were in the water," said King, a construction worker from northern Baltimore County who has three young girls. "I didn't worry about anything. Once I saw that kid, it was coming from the heart. I did what I was trained to do."

King and others said it's hard to think about the victims they weren't able to save. They don't want to be called heroes, but yesterday, as many of the rescuers gathered in the Naval Reserve Center's cafeteria, Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said the word was the only one that fit.

"We have a hard time in our business also because you can't get to everyone, but yesterday you literally changed the course of time," said Goodwin, who added that if the reservists hadn't been there, "things would have been drastically different."

The rescuers gathered around him in a tight circle as he quietly spoke about the difficulty of not being able to save every life, a pain often confronted by firefighters. But the chief said the hurt will go away over time and be replaced by a lasting pride.

"I don't know you, but I'm proud of you," Goodwin said. "Hold your head up high. You did outstanding. There will be people alive for generations because of what you did."

Many of the reservists interviewed yesterday played down their roles in the rescue to praise their colleagues. Several singled out the heroism of Cmdr. Pete Decker, who developed hypothermia after diving into the water.

"He collapsed and passed out 10 times," Romano said. "He came to and I was trying to calm him down, and he wanted to get up and pull people out. I turned my back when he was sitting down, and the next thing I know, he was giving CPR to someone, and he was barely conscious himself."

King said he was thinking of his children when he dove in.

"It was from the heart," he said, standing near the dock where the capsized water taxi rested yesterday. "It wasn't a Navy thing. It was, 'I gotta get that kid.' If my family was out there, I would surely want somebody to do the same thing."

Sun staff writers Richard Irwin and Rona Kobell contributed to this article.