Five tourists killed when high winds overturn pontoon water taxi in Baltimore Inner Harbor

Five tourists died March 6 when a fast-moving cold front packing 50-mile-an-hour winds capsized a water taxi that was ferrying them around Baltimore’s historic Inner Harbor.

The overturned water taxi sits at a dock after the accident. The boat was flipped by winds exceeding 50 miles per hour.
   Image Credit: John Sancken Photos

Lady D, a 36-foot two-ton pontoon boat operated by Seaport Taxi was flipped by the fierce winds just minutes after leaving Fort McHenry with 23 passengers for Fells Point across the harbor.

Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., died shortly after being pulled from the water by U.S. Navy reservists who witnessed the accident from the Naval Reserve Training Center near Fort McHenry. Her daughter, Lisa Pierce, 30, of Lyndhurst, N.J., died two days later at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore.

The bodies of Daniel Bentrem, 6, of Harrisonburg, Va., and Andrew Roccella, 26, of Alexandria, Va., were recovered by Baltimore Fire Department divers on March 14. The body of Roccella’s fiancée, Corrine Schillings, 26, also of Alexandria, was recovered March 15.

The accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB appeared to be focusing on two primary issues:

• Why the National Weather Service did not broadcast a special warning until five minutes after the disaster, especially since the privately owned WeatherBug Internet weather service had been reporting dangerous storms across Maryland for nearly an hour.

• Whether Lady D’s pontoon design is inherently dangerous in high winds and rough water.

Just before the pontoon boat left the dock, the weather seemed unthreatening, as the passengers basked in the late-winter sun. But just 40 miles south of Baltimore, the storm was roaring through Washington, D.C. At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, winds as high as 53 miles an hour were recorded.

At 1558, when Lady D was leaving Fort McHenry, the National Weather Service issued a short-term forecast warning of thunderstorms and winds as high as 45 miles an hour around Baltimore and the upper Chesapeake Bay. The wind was rising, and rain began falling as the water taxi, which is owned by the Living Classrooms Foundation of Baltimore, headed out toward Fells Point on the northern side of the harbor.

Weather conditions suddenly changed dramatically. The captain of an unidentified vessel radioed Lady D’s captain that what he thought was a microburst was hitting the Inner Harbor. Lady D immediately turned around and tried to make it back to the nearest dock or bulkhead.

U.S. Navy reservists were the first on the scene. By rapidly extricating survivors from the cold water, they prevented the death toll from going any higher.

Passengers aboard Lady D and horrified naval reservists watching from shore said the boat was badly buffeted by the wind and waves as its captain struggled to bring it back. Then the boat veered to the right and was flipped over by a gust.

At 1604, as the passengers struggled in the water and the first 911 calls started coming in to Baltimore emergency officials, the National Weather Service issued its second and strongest warning. It reported winds of up to 58 miles an hour and told mariners to seek shelter.

Word of the capsizing swept through both the Naval Reserve Training Center and the nearby Baltimore Fire Department fireboat base in seconds. Twenty naval reservists dashed to ACU2-27, their 72-foot emergency and training vessel, and were alongside Lady D in less than 20 minutes. Survivors who had managed to crawl onto the upturned pontoons were quickly taken aboard.

Several reservists dove into the water — where the temperature was reported variously as 36° to 44° — wearing only their street clothes to rescue victims who were floating nearby. Then the sailors maneuvered ACU2-27’s hydraulically operated loading ramp under Lady D and used it to lift the boat enough to reach people trapped underneath.

Seaport Taxi, which is operated by Living Classrooms’ National Historic Seaport, resumed limited service around the Inner Harbor on March 17 with boats similar to Lady D.

The Living Classrooms Foundation, which started with a single boat in 1985 to help troubled inner-city youth by guiding them into hands-on maritime training programs, has grown to play a major tourism role on the Baltimore waterfront. Seaport Taxi became part of the expanding foundation in 2000 when the foundation purchased nine pontoon boats from Harbor Shuttle, a for-profit company.

By Professional Mariner Staff