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24 sue over Seaport Taxi's capsizing

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As state officials revoked the license of the balloon ride that stranded 16 passengers for nearly two hours over Baltimore Saturday, the latest lawsuits flowed in from the Inner Harbor accident last winter that claimed five lives when a water taxi capsized.

Baltimore officials said they hope the city's tourism industry isn't set back by the incidents.

"Naturally, we'd rather not have this incident highlighted on the national news," said Nancy Hinds, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "Fortunately, no one was [seriously] injured. ... Hopefully, our visitors will see them as isolated incidents and look beyond them."

It could be a month before the Balloon Over Baltimore Inc. ride can be reinspected for the possibility of reopening, said an official with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Passengers were stranded and terrified 200 feet above the ground for almost two hours Saturday after a sudden wind squall caused equipment to malfunction.

Meanwhile, a court deadline yesterday related to the March 6 water taxi accident drew lawsuits from 24 of the 25 people, or their families, aboard the capsized Seaport Taxi. Among those filing suit was the vessel's mate. Suits were filed against the operator, Living Classrooms Foundation. Only the captain did not join in the lawsuits, a dozen of which were filed several weeks ago.

One couple, who lost their 5-year-old son in the accident and whose daughter remains in a coma according to court papers filed this month, are seeking $16 million in damages.

The water tragedy of four months ago doesn't appear to be hurting ridership this summer, however. Operators of the two water transports that ply downtown Baltimore's harbor -- Ed Kane's Water Taxis and Living Classrooms' Seaport Taxi -- and others say ridership hasn't been notably dampened by safety concerns.

"No one really asks any questions," said Dave Geraghty, dock coordinator for Seaport Taxi at the Inner Harbor, who said he hasn't noticed a drop in traffic. "They just come right on board and go to their destinations."

Hotel guests remain unfazed by the March accident, if they're aware of it, several Inner Harbor hotel concierges said.

"It's like it never even happened," said Mark Vitelli, head of concierges at the Marriott Inner Harbor. "The guests don't even question it."

The Seaport Taxi reopened several weeks after the accident. Ridership was significantly down in April compared with a year earlier, but began to recover in May, said Andrew Murray, director of the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore. Business has returned to normal levels since June, he said.

"It could happen anywhere," said Beth Rose of New Jersey, who had returned to her native Baltimore for the Fourth of July weekend.

Cameron Kane, owner of Ed Kane's Water Taxis, the Seaport Taxi's competitor, said business was up, although not as much as she had hoped.

"We're doing about the same as we did last year, a little bit better," said Kane, who pulled her boats off the water just before the storm March 6. "We should be doing a lot better because we have a bigger market share -- way bigger. So that means there are people who aren't riding. I think it'll take a season to settle down."

Tickets with a water transportation component represent 61 percent of ticket sales at the Baltimore Visitor Center since it opened May 7, local tourism officials say. A total of 4,412 tickets have been sold since the opening of the center, which has entertained nearly 137,000 visitors.

"We get some questions on it, because it got so much national attention," said Mike Pietryka, director of visitor services for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It may not have been so much of an issue as people feared. ... As long as people keep coming in our building, we're going to put a positive spin on Baltimore."

"The timing of one right after another is obviously not a good thing," said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., a business group. He hopes that next year's opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture will provide a better spin for the city's hospitality image.

On Saturday afternoon, a group of tourists who wanted to visit the Fort McHenry historic attraction were advised by a Seaport Taxi captain docked in Fells Point to seek shelter because of the strong wind gusts -- the same winds that buffeted the balloon.

"The last two storms weren't on the radar, they just popped up at the fort," said Reginald Best, a three-season veteran as captain of the Seaport Taxi. He took an empty boat to Fort McHenry to pick up a line of waiting tourists.

Best said he has been impressed by out-of-town visitors who offer condolences for the lives lost before boarding his boat. No one has asked for a life jacket, however, he said.

But some visitors have given more thought to water travel.

Playing host to friends from Michigan on the recent holiday weekend, Jeff and Lori Overstreet said they took the Seaport Taxi from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor to catch an Orioles game. They did talk to their guests about the March accident and are being more vigilant about checking the weather before riding, they said.

Sun staff writer Stacey Hirsh contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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