Witnesses Probed in Baltimore Water Taxi Capsizing

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Crews searched an area of Baltimore Harbor on Monday for three people missing since a water taxi capsized during a sudden storm as investigators interviewed witnesses about whether proper precautions were taken before the tourist boat went down.

Federal investigators want to know if the two-man crew told passengers to put on life jackets after getting word from the boat's owner that the storm was headed their way. The boat was equipped with life jackets, but passengers are not required to wear them.

The water taxi's owner radioed the captain that the thunderstorm was approaching and he started for shore, said Ellen Engleman-Conners, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

``There was a report of communication between the owner-operator of the vessel and the vessel concerning the weather,'' she said.

Engleman-Conners said officials interviewed about 10 witnesses Monday, including Navy reservists who helped rescue victims. Besides continuing the search for the missing, she said officials on Tuesday would retrace the water taxi's route through the harbor.

The Seaport Taxi pontoon boat overturned Saturday afternoon near Fort McHenry when the area was struck by a sudden storm with wind gusting to 55 mph. Of the 25 people on board, one died, and a man, a woman and a child were still missing.

Divers braved frigid, murky waters Monday to investigate three objects discovered with a sonar that could have been the missing passengers, fire spokesman Kevin Cartwright said. But after hours of searching, all the objects were ruled out, Cartwright said.

Search crews focused on a channel about 50 feet deep in an area marked by buoys. The water temperature was about 36 degrees, meaning that even in wet suits divers could stay on the bottom only about 20 minutes at a time, Baltimore Fire Department Chief William Goodwin said.

They also faced zero visibility at times and treacherous debris on the bottom.

``This is an old harbor. It's not the Bahamas out there,'' Goodwin said.

The NTSB said an initial inspection found that the capsized boat's steering system appeared to be intact. The boat was scheduled to be removed Tuesday from the water for further inspection at a boat yard.

The taxi's safety records showed no major accidents, the NTSB added, and the captain's license was valid.

The crew's actions were defended Monday by James Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the taxi fleet. Both crewmen survived.

``Our guys did the best they could when this bad weather came,'' Bond said.

Killed in the accident was JoAnn Pierce, 60, of New Jersey, according to The Daily Journal of Vineland, N.J.

The missing were identified by relatives and media reports as Corinne Schillings, 26, of Illinois; her fiance, Andrew Roccella, 26, of Virginia; and Daniel Bentrem, 6, of Virginia.

Five people remained in hospitals Monday. An 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman were in critical condition.

Navy reservists rushed to the scene after seeing the boat in trouble. The sailors described the horrific scene: survivors clinging to the overturned vessel in frigid water pounded by wind-driven rain, telling them more were trapped below.

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

The 36-foot pontoon boat, which was at full capacity, had just set off across the harbor from historic Fort McHenry on the way to the city's Fells Point when it overturned.