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'Those bodies just floated up'

Sailors recount Baltimore rescue

BALTIMORE -- Rushing to the capsized water taxi, the Navy reservists came upon a startling scene: survivors clinging to the overturned vessel, pounded by frigid, choppy waves, and a driving rain. What they heard from the survivors was worse: People were trapped below.

The reservists, whose work helped save 21 people in Baltimore Harbor, recounted yesterday their rescue of the day before. A 60-year-old woman was killed and three people, including a 6-year-old boy, were missing, but the reservists said they were relieved the loss of life wasn't greater.

The sailors rushed to the scene after seeing the boat in trouble. After passengers clinging to the water taxi told them others were trapped, the rescuers used a ramp on their troop landing ship to lift the water taxi partly out of the water, Petty Officer Jeffrey King said.

"Brother, it was like the end of the `Titanic' movie once that thing lifted up," King said. "I mean, those bodies just floated up."

Lieutenant Commander Art Eisenstein said he jumped into the water and grabbed a little girl who was unconscious and floating facedown.

"Just to hear that she's still with us is just amazing," Eisenstein said.

Water temperatures were in the low 40s as survivors were pulled from the water amid a heavy rain.

"It was pretty hateful," Petty Officer Henry Zecher said. "I'm relieved that we were able to save as many lives as we were."

Fire and police officials also assisted in the rescue.

"The rescue efforts that happened yesterday were nothing short of miraculous," Baltimore Fire Chief William Goodwin said. "They were able to pluck people out of the water almost immediately."

Two people, an 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman, were critically injured when the 36-foot pontoon boat overturned with 23 passengers and two crew members.

The ferry had just set off across the harbor from Fort McHenry -- the War of 1812 site made famous by the "Star-Spangled Banner." The boat was on its way to the city's Fells Point when a 50-mile-per-hour gust caught it. The boat, which was at capacity, was equipped with life preservers, but passengers were not required to wear them.

Twenty-two people were removed from the water, but one woman died at a hospital. Seven remained hospitalized yesterday.

Recovery crews used boats, helicopters, sonar, and dogs trained to find submerged bodies in yesterday's search for the boy, a 26-year-old man, and a 26-year-old woman. They stopped about 6 p.m. because of bad weather, and officials said they would begin again early today.

Authorities had not released the victims' names by last night.

Investigators said they were looking at the weather and the condition and operation of the vessel as possible factors in the accident.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Ellen Engleman-Conners said officials were interviewing survivors and witnesses and were awaiting voluntary toxicology tests conducted yesterday on the captain and first mate.

Engleman-Conners said the boat would be removed from the water so investigators could do complete hull and steering system inspections. She said an initial inspection found that the steering system appeared to be intact.

She said officials also inspected five other boats operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the 11 Seaport Taxis.

A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group said the boat's captain, Frank O. Deppner, has talked to investigators.

The foundation's president, James Bond, said the boat "was ready for an inspection on Monday and in shape the way she should be."

Deppner released a statement last night saying he "was deeply saddened by the tragedy that occurred yesterday afternoon." He said the NTSB asked him not to comment on specifics, but he added, "I would like to extend my sincere concern and condolences to the passengers and families affected by yesterday's accident."

Police Major Fred Bealefeld said three of the people on board were from Puerto Rico and others were from Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Engleman-Conners said she saw similarities to an October accident in which a Staten Island Ferry slammed into a pier after crossing New York Harbor, killing 10 people.

She said she was concerned about a trend relating to "passenger safety when we're crossing the water. . . . It's something we're definitely reviewing."

NTSB investigator Bill Woody said the accident also was similar to the 1984 sinking of a paddlewheel excursion boat in the Tennessee River at Huntsville, Ala., that killed 11 people. The Coast Guard said that accident was caused by a severe thunderstorm.

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