Navy Reserve and Air National Guard to the Rescue!

It’s certainly not something you plan for.

No matter whether you are passengers – such as Mount Holly, N.C., residents, Eric Jahnsen and his fiancée Sarah Kernagis — or eyewitnesses such as Command Master Chief Petty Officer in the Navy Melvin Johnson or naval reservist Lt. Cmdr. Art Eisenstein, a jeweler who lives in Edgewater, Md., just outside of Baltimore, sometimes a life-and-death situation can appear in seconds.

It was raining in Baltimore Harbor on Saturday, March 6, 2004, but it rains a lot this time of the year. The wind was blowing as well, but no more than it often does on a blustery winter afternoon. But this time was different. Suddenly around 4 p.m., without warning the wind picked up to near gale-strength. The Lady D, a pontoon-equipped 36-foot water taxi captained by 74-year old Francis Deppner, twisted in the gust, rocked sharply and capsized, spilling her 25 passengers into the frigid Baltimore Harbor water.

Captain Deppner was well qualified with a valid Master’s License issued in April 2002. The Lady D was within her maintenance schedule, and was due for a routine safety check this month, having undergone her last on March 26, 2003. The 25 passengers had received a safety brief, and knew how to find and don the taxi’s life vests.

The problem was there was no time – no time to brace, no time to grab the kids, no time for anything but panic as the passengers hit the cold water.

Fortunately, among the passengers were four members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard deployed in Washington and visiting Baltimore: Master Sgt. David Blakeley, and Staff Sgts. Antonio Acosta, Alejandro Gonzalez and Luis Nazario. They escaped from the overturned vessel by swimming through two windows that they broke open.

In an email account of his experience, Blakeley wrote that after escaping through the window, he saw a couple that had two children still under water. “They were screaming for someone to help them,” he wrote. “I swam down and felt a foot and got the crew mate, who was turning purple.” He said that Acosta and Nazario administered CPR and “brought him [the crew member] back to life.”

Meanwhile, at the Naval Reserve station onshore, Johnson and Information Systems Technician 3rd Class Edward Mendez witnessed the capsizing and immediately dialed 911. Then they alerted the personnel assembled for a weekend of Navy Reserve training. Within minutes, Cmdr. Petersen Decker, commanding officer of Fleet and Industrial Supply Center Norfolk, Det. 106, coordinated the launch of one of the NRC’s ACU2-27s (basically World War II landing craft like those used in the Normandy landing) to assist in the rescue effort.

Passengers Jahnsen and Kernagis reported that the Navy arrived within about ten minutes, but according to NRC Baltimore Commanding Officer Cmdr. Jim McGovern, it actually took nearly twenty minutes for the 2-27 to arrive at the scene. In the meanwhile, the four Puerto Rico Air National Guardsmen were keeping thing together, and people alive.

When the 2-27 boat arrived, the fifteen Navy Reserve and Regular Navy members quickly discovered that people still were caught under the hull. According to one of the rescuers, Petty Officer 1st Class David Romano, they tossed life vests to the people in the water and on the capsized taxi, and secured the taxi to the 2-27 with several lines. “You don’t do it to be a hero,” he said. “You do it because it’s your natural instinct.”

Then they lowered the landing ramp, drove it under the capsized taxi, and lifted the ramp so rescuers could retrieve the people trapped underneath.

The 2-27 was not designed for rescue operations, of course, and the ramp was not designed for lifting vessels out of the water.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King, became entangled in ropes after entering the water, and was himself rescued. As quoted in The Washington Post, he said: “Sometimes you have to improvise.”

When 8-year-old Sara Bentrem floated out from under the raised Taxi and started to drift away with the current, Lt. Cmdr. Eisenstein immediately dove in after her. When he hoisted her to the 2-27, others administered CPR. Sara is still in critical condition, but is expected to survive.

Sometime later, the Baltimore Fire Department water rescue people arrived on the scene. Coordination between Fire Department personnel and Navy personnel worked like they had been practicing these operations for months. For the most part, all it took was a look or a gesture to accomplish what was necessary.

According to The Baltimore Sun, passenger Jahnsen said he had not realized that there were fellow passengers who had not resurfaced until people started yelling and the Navy reservists began diving into the water. “They’re real heroes,” he said. “They’re amazing. Many of them were giving us the coats right off their backs.”

As reported by the Sun, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey King, who was one of the in-water rescuers, said: “The current was so bad – it was just banging us against the ship. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t hear anything. And I just saw the bodies. It was terrible.”

Many of the reservists interviewed the next day by staff writers from the Sun played down their roles in the rescue. Several singled out Cmdr. Decker, who developed hypothermia after diving into the water. According to Romano as reported in the Sun, “He collapsed and passed out 10 times. He came to and I was trying to calm him down, and he wanted to get up and pull people out. I turned my back when he was sitting down, and the next thing I know, he was giving CPR to someone, and he was barely conscious himself.”

The following Sunday, Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. stopped at the Naval Reserve Center to express his thanks to the rescuers. “You literally changed the course of time,” He told them. “If you weren’t here, things would have been drastically different.”

The bottom line is: Of 25 people, all but three are accounted for. Missing are 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem, of Harrisonburg, Va., who was on an outing with his parents and two sisters, and Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill., and her fiance, Andrew M. Roccella, also 26, of Virginia. Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J. , died that afternoon. Her 30-year-old daughter Lisa died on Monday after lingering in critical condition for several days. Eight-year-old Sara Bentrem remains in critical condition in a Baltimore Hospital. The remaining 19 are recovered and going about their normal business.

It was an afternoon of heroics: men essentially untrained for such a task rose to the challenge, applied basic skills learned in their military careers, and saved the day, and 20 lives – first the Puerto Rico Air National Guardsmen, and then the Navy guys.

Bravo Zulu!

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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