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Divers enlist high-tech help in water taxi recovery mission

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Divers blindly scouring the bottom of the channel off Fort McHenry yesterday discovered pieces of the Seaport Taxi that capsized Saturday, injecting a glimmer of hope into a dismal search for three bodies that enters its fifth day this morning with more high-tech help.

In addition to the three passengers who are presumed dead, the harbor tragedy claimed its second confirmed death when a 34-year-old New Jersey woman died late Monday at Harbor Hospital.

"Definitely we can say where the bodies are not," Fire Department Chief William J. Goodwin said last night. "We just haven't found the people yet." Two survivors and one of the Naval reservists who rescued them assisted the search yesterday by better locating where high winds flipped a 36-foot pontoon boat on Saturday.

The accident plunged 25 people into the Patapsco River, trapping many inside the boat's canopy.

As divers crawled and clawed the channel's silt-covered bottom yesterday, Goodwin expressed sorrow for the victims of the city's first fatal water taxi accident and voiced his commitment to find the missing.

The first confirmed death was Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., who was pulled from the water Saturday but died shortly afterward.

Her 34-year-old daughter, Lisa, died late Monday after 2 1/2 days in critical condition. An 8-year-old girl, Sara Bentrem from Harrisonburg, Va., remained in critical condition yesterday at University of Maryland Medical Center.

The missing include Sara's 6-year-old brother, Daniel Bentrem. The siblings were on an outing with their parents and one other sister, all of whom survived.

The others missing are Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill., and her soon-to-be fiance, Andrew M. Roccella, also 26, of Virginia. Roccella was planning to give Schillings an engagement ring, family members said.

Both sets of the couple's parents, who were visiting Baltimore, survived the accident.

"We don't try to get personal, but in this case ... we built some sort of closeness and attachment" to the families involved in the harbor tragedy, Goodwin said.

The victims' family ties and the young ages of the missing and injured have made the search an emotionally wrenching experience for divers braving zero visibility in 36-degree water in the grim hope of putting their hands on a body.

"We're doing this as recovery, but it's more for closure for the families," said firefighter Bernard "Bean" Muller, 46, a dive team member. "It's tough for anyone who's lost a family member."

The experience has been equally tough on survivors.

Greg Pettibon, 23, of Gaithersburg, moved to Maryland from Texas in late December and was visiting Baltimore for the first time on Saturday.

A rapidly moving thunderstorm struck the 2-ton Seaport Taxi shortly after it left its Fort McHenry dock. Fierce wind gusts flipped the boat as its captain attempted to steer it back to shore after receiving late-arriving storm warnings from the National Weather Service.

"It was very sudden, very violent," Pettibon said. "In terms of time for preparation, we had none."

When the boat "flipped," he said, "you couldn't see anything."

Being trapped inside was a confusing jumble of dark water, bodies, life preservers, seat cushions and chaos, he said.

"It seemed like it was all full with water right away," he said. "It was the most desperate thing I can think of. It was either get out or die."

He commended the Naval reservists who were performing exercises on shore when the accident happened and responded to the boat within minutes.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introduced a resolution yesterday recognizing the heroics of reservists and city firefighters. "They put their own lives on the line to save others," Mikulski said in the resolution.

Other elected officials were concerned about doing what they could to avoid a similar calamity in the future. State leaders are considering holding hearings on emergency preparedness. And in a March 8 letter to the director of the National Weather Service, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes wrote, "It is contended that the NWS warning about this storm came too late. ..."

Sarbanes requested a "prompt report" on how the NWS responded to the storm and "an overall review of NWS capability to report severe weather to mariners in the Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay area."

Meanwhile, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board continued their investigation into how the pontoon boat, the Lady D, capsized.

Yesterday they used another Seaport Taxi to retrace the course of the boat based on interviews with its captain, Francis Deppner, 74, from Middle River.

Investigators were accompanied by two Coast Guard representatives and two captains employed by the Living Classrooms Foundation, which owns and operates Seaport Taxi.

Seaport Taxi did not provide commercial taxi service yesterday, and its service was not expected to continue today. "We are going to take it one day at a time," said James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Because none of the other pontoon boats owned by the Living Classrooms Foundation matched the Lady D, NTSB investigators will review drawings and stability calculations of a nearly identical boat in Toledo, Ohio, NTSB spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi said.

"We are looking at the question, what was the stability of the vessel? How does it hold up in wind and rain conditions?" Peduzzi said. "Was there an isolated incident or is there a larger problem than just this accident?"

Investigators continued to interview survivors about life jacket accessibility and whether the captain offered them to the passengers, Peduzzi said. Officials are also asking passengers where they sat on the boat to determine whether some seats were more difficult to escape than others, Peduzzi said.

Retracing the boat's path yesterday helped investigators understand the currents and depth of the water.

That information is expected to aid recovery efforts today as fire officials zero in on the area of the capsizing, a process aided yesterday by fortunate discoveries.

Goodwin said sophisticated sonar discovered the boat's canopy yesterday. A ladder and a railing from the boat were discovered Monday.

Those items remain under water and will be retrieved later in coordination with NTSB. For today's recovery efforts, those finds have been marked on a grid produced by constant sonar surveillance.

Today, divers will revisit those areas in search of the bodies. They will be assisted by infrared robotic submarines lent by Tyco Corp., which has a Baltimore office. The devices are typically used to scan the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The discoveries and witness accounts have steered recovery efforts farther north of Fort McHenry and closer to the Canton shoreline. Officials said the bodies are expected to remain close to the debris because they more likely sank than floated downstream.

Divers continued to find unrelated items yesterday, but the process of elimination has Goodwin hoping for a resolution soon.

"We have never not found someone," Goodwin said. "We always completed our mission."

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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