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High-tech sonar to help search for water taxi victims

Three people remain missing in Baltimore, Maryland, Harbor
A diver jumps into the water Sunday searching for three people missing in the Baltimore, Maryland, Harbor.

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The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the water taxi accident.

A water taxi capsizes in Baltimore Harbor.

The rescue operation turns into a recovery mission.

Coast Guard
Baltimore (Maryland)
Waterway and Maritime Transportation

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- Recovery teams returned to Baltimore Harbor's frigid waters Monday with state-of-the-art sonar to help in their search for three people still missing from a weekend water taxi accident.

The 36-foot Seaport Taxi pontoon boat capsized Saturday afternoon in a sudden storm, driven by 50 mph winds across the Inner Harbor. Twenty-two people were rescued from the accident, but one woman later died.

Fire Chief William Goodwin said a manufacturer provided the high-tech equipment, but it did not arrive until after darkness and choppy water forced an end to the search Sunday night.

"The water's about 36 degrees; there's zero visibility, so each diver gets about 15 to 20 minutes bottom time," Goodwin said. "That seems to be the most time-consuming effort, switching the divers because of the cold."

He said that the department's older sonar had given some good indications Sunday and that teams hoped the new equipment would narrow their search area in the harbor's shipping channel, where depths are about 50 feet.

"We have three people out there that we have to bring home, and that's what we're committed to doing," the chief said.

Recovery teams are looking for a 6-year-old boy, a 26-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman. Five people remain hospitalized; two -- an 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman -- are in critical condition.

Fast-acting rescuers -- including reservists from the nearby Naval Reserve Center -- pulled 22 of the 25 people aboard the boat from the water. A 60-year-old woman who was rescued later died.

James Bond, spokesman for Living Classrooms, the nonprofit organization that operates Seaport Taxi, commended what he called "the heroic efforts" of reservists, police, firefighters and the Coast Guard.

"They did some amazing things and saved a lot of lives," he said, adding that Seaport Taxi was not operating Monday in deference to the victims' families and would decide on a day-to-day basis about operations.

NTSB looking at weather as a factor

Earlier Monday, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said that the board's investigation would cover a wide array of issues, including the weather conditions and human factors.

"In this accident, we're really focusing ... [on] the weather, the operation of the vessel, the safety education that would have been given to passengers," she said.

"We're going to look at the captain's discretion and decisions that he made, the owner-operators' decisions to operate under such weather conditions. We're looking at the vessel itself to ensure hull integrity, systems that were in place, the steering and propulsion were mechanically sound."

But she said the key focus would be on weather and safety, particularly what safety education the passengers would have received before their trip began.

Conners said a small craft advisory was issued Saturday afternoon, when the squall raced across the harbor with 50 mph winds, flipping the boat into the chilly waters.

She said investigators had not completed the timeline of the accident and couldn't say if the advisory was issued before or after the boat left a stop at Fort McHenry for the next one at Fells Point.

A diver stands next to a water taxi as a crane pulls it upright Sunday in Baltimore Harbor.

"We also knew there was communication between the owner-operators and all of their vessels as well as with this particular captain," she said. "They were in the process of trying to return to a safe area."

The boat was certified to give 30-minute tours around several points of interest and was on one of its regular loops around the harbor when the accident occurred. It was required to carry one life jacket per person aboard, but their use was not required.

NTSB investigators Sunday interviewed the captain, the boat's mate, two passengers and the owner and operator of the boat, Conners said.

The boat's captain voluntarily gave investigators blood and urine samples, which will be used for standard procedure toxicology studies, she said.

Bond said Living Classrooms occasionally allows teenagers to serve as mates on the taxis to learn the position but that the mate on the boat was "a man in his 40s who is a licensed captain."

"Our guys did the best they could with this storm that came out of nowhere," Bond said.

The vessel was righted Sunday afternoon and towed to a dock where it will be lifted from the water for an inspection of its hull, steering and propulsion systems, Conners said. A preliminary inspection of the steering indicated it was normal, she said.

Five other vessels operated by Seaport Taxi also will be inspected, Conners said.

Goodwin said the water taxis on Baltimore Harbor have an excellent safety record, ferrying about 70,000 people per year for at least a decade with no accidents until this one.

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