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Rescuers hailed for keeping toll down

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As the wind whipped out of the Inner Harbor toward Fort McHenry late yesterday afternoon, Petty Officer Edward Mendez looked from the U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center on Fort Avenue and couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"It looked like a small toy boat blown out of control," Mendez said last night, recalling the initial moments of Baltimore's catastrophic water taxi accident. "The wind was so strong. I'd never seen anything like it."

"As the boat tried to make it back to shore, they tried to turn it, and there was nothing they could do. The wind didn't really push it up. It just rolled it over," said Mendez, 41, of San Diego.

Mendez quickly called 911 to alert the Baltimore Fire Department's water rescue station next door. He and his fellow naval officers then scrambled into action.

"It felt like the wind was a gale force," said Master Chief Melvin Johnson, 58, of Baltimore, who also saw the boat capsize. "The water and wind were just too much.

"We heard the building give a loud shake. I looked out and saw the boat. The water was getting choppy, and it was eerie, it was like the wind and water were overtaking the vessel.

"It started to turn to port, to try to go to safety or to turn back, and then it tilted and flipped over," Johnson said.

'As fast as we could'

Johnson said that although the center's reserve officers -- who were at the base for weekend exercises -- aren't specifically trained for such a rescue, there was no hesitation.

"I didn't have to call anyone," said Johnson, the senior enlisted man at the center. "Everyone automatically starting going and getting the boat together to get out there as fast as we could."

More than 20 officers scrambled aboard the center's 72-foot-long naval troop deployment vessel, which includes a ramp off the rear for easy movement into and out of the water.

Meantime, the people thrown into the water from the capsized 36-foot Seaport Taxi scrambled for whatever refuge they could find from the choppy, freezing water.

"I saw two people get onto the bottom of the boat right away, and some other people then got up onto it a few minutes later," said Mendez, who remained at the center with Johnson as they prepared for survivors.

Boat kept drifting

By the time the rescuers reached the capsized craft -- a little more than 20 minutes after Mendez and Johnson saw the accident -- it had drifted a quarter-mile farther from Fort McHenry.

"The boat kept moving farther and farther away," Johnson said. "The wind was still blowing, and it started going out toward the Key Bridge."

The naval boat and the fire department craft reached the capsized vessel at about the same time.

"Ten of our guys went into the water right away and started pulling people up onto the boat," Mendez said. "They had life preservers, that was it. They were freezing because the water was so cold. It didn't matter. They went in to do the rescue."

Mendez said he believed that 17 survivors were pulled from the water by naval officers and brought back to land.

"People were conscious. A few were not," Mendez said.

With the fire department's station and the naval training center side by side adjacent to Fort McHenry, officers immediately began helping firefighters set up treatment.

"We were bringing out blankets and clothing, whatever we could find," Mendez said. "Anything to help people get warm."

Johnson said T-shirts also were distributed to the shivering, wet survivors.

"Everyone looked so cold," he said.

After the survivors were transported to area hospitals, the reservists were taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for treatment, Johnson said.

"They need to be taken care of," Johnson said. "They were all very cold, and they needed to be checked out. They also needed to talk to someone because they had just seen people die. That's a tough thing."

While briefing reporters last night, Baltimore Fire Chief William Goodwin Jr. acknowledged how fortunate it had been that the two naval officers had seen the boat flip over -- and that the accident had taken place directly in front of both the naval center and the fire rescue station.

"Had no one been looking, this tragedy would be worse than it already is," Goodwin said.

The naval center's commander said he was proud of the efforts of his officers.

"I think it's great that they did exactly what they needed to do, without hesitation," said Cmdr. Jim McGovern, 39, of Virginia Beach. Va. "They responded to the situation out there as best they could.

"Things surely would have been worse if they hadn't have responded so quickly."

By the time Mendez finished talking to reporters last night, he appeared to realize the value of what he and his fellow officers had done.

"If it wasn't for the Navy," Mendez said, "a lot more people wouldn't have made it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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