City plans fixes for Pride of Baltimore memorial in disrepair

This is an overall view of the Pride of Baltimore memorial near Rash Field at the Inner Harbor. It has fallen into disrepair over the years.
This is an overall view of the Pride of Baltimore memorial near Rash Field at the Inner Harbor. It has fallen into disrepair over the years. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Twenty-six years ago this month, Roma Foti's daughter, 23-year-old Nina Schack, was one of four crew members who lost their lives when the Pride of Baltimore, a replica of a 19th century sailing vessel, sank in a sudden storm in the Bermuda Triangle.

Foti has always found comfort, she says, knowing that a memorial to the lost stood in Rash Field on the Inner Harbor. That's why she felt so let down last fall when she visited the site and saw it was in disrepair.

Two panels bearing the names of the dead were four inches out of alignment, a corner was chipped off the facing, and two large cracks bisected a granite base nearby.

After Foti wrote city officials, and as The Baltimore Sun investigated the matter, the city announced Tuesday that it would partner with the nonprofit Pride of Baltimore Inc. to inspect the site and to help underwrite sufficient repair work to ensure the memorial is appropriately respectful of a tragedy that gripped Baltimore and the entire seafaring world in 1986.

"I'm part of just one of the many families touched by this event," Foti, 82, said in a phone call from her home in Bloomington, Minn. "But I was disappointed. I didn't want to make this about myself, but I wrote to everybody I could think of."

It took a while, but Foti has gotten results.

"We're committed to making sure this very important memorial remains every bit as dignified as it ought to be," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the office of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, adding that while the city hopes and expects the repairs to be "relatively minor," it also wants to take the time to locate the best-qualified stoneworking company for the job.

The Baltimore Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works with the city to provide economic development services, had recently inspected the site, O'Doherty said, and concluded that both the elements and vandals had caused the damage, leaving scars on a site that was built to preserve the memories of those who died and of a tragedy that many recall as one of the most dramatic in the city's history.

The story began in 1975 when the city — gearing up to revitalize its Inner Harbor — adopted a proposal from Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management for the construction of an exact replica of a historic 19th-Century Baltimore Clipper.

A maritime architect, Thomas Gillmer, designed the ship. Boatwrights crafted it with period tools and materials. Barbara A. Mikulski, then a congresswoman, performed the launching ceremony in 1977, and Mayor William Donald Schaefer commissioned the craft in May of that year.

The craft plied international waters for nine years, covering more than 150,000 miles while raising international awareness about the city whose reawakening it was created to symbolize.

With Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III at the helm, it was returning from an 18-month tour of Europe in the spring of 1986 when it entered a portion of the Bermuda Triangle 250 nautical miles north of Puerto Rico.

On May 14, a sudden and catastrophic storm — a "microburst" — hit. Winds of 80 knots (about 90 miles per hour) lashed the ship, capsizing it almost immediately.

Four crew members were lost: Elsaesser, 42; Schack, a Bryn Mawr School graduate who was taking time away from her studies at Cornell University; engineer Vincent Lazzaro, 27, of Connecticut, and carpenter Barry Duckworth, 29, of Maine.

The remaining eight spent the next 41/2 days floating in a half-inflated life raft with minimal provisions, signaling passing ships in vain. Some believe they were within a day or two of death themselves when a Norwegian tanker, the Toro, spotted and rescued them.

Word of the disaster reached Baltimore four days later when crew member Joe McGeady, then 26, called his home in Severna Park from the deck of the Toro and told his mother the Pride had sunk.

The news made local and national headlines, sparked an outpouring of public grief and eventually led to inquiries regarding the seaworthiness of a vessel that was — like the ships after which it was patterned — better suited for quick shifts of direction than maintaining stability in rough weather.

Survivors and the families of the crew members involved say the tragedy forged a lasting bond among them.

Ford Elsaesser, Captain Elsaesser's brother; McGeady and McGeady's older brother, Stuart, of Severna Park, and many others stayed in touch over the years, sometimes crossing paths on May 14, the date on which Pride of Baltimore Inc. holds an annual memorial service for the lost.

The memorial itself has always served as a comfort, says Ford Elsaesser, an attorney in Sandpoint, Idaho.

"It's such a peaceful place, so quiet right there in the midst of the city," he says of the site, which features the tall mast replica standing between two 14-foot-long banks covered with slabs of polished granite.

Rigging stretches from the stone bases to the top of the mast, a mute salute to those who gave their lives.

The state of the site came as disappointing news to Elsaesser as well as to Joe McGeady, now a tugboat captain in Maine.

"I haven't seen it for several years," says McGeady, who spoke at the tenth anniversary memorial in 1996. "But I do think this is important. You don't want to remember something like this every day, but a physical reminder keeps the memory from fading too far. It's good the city built the memorial, but I'd like to think upkeep would be part of the bargain as well."

Jan Miles, one of the three alternating captains of the original Pride when the accident occurred, is now acting executive director of Pride of Baltimore Inc., as well as sometime captain of the Pride's replacement, the Pride of Baltimore II.

Reached on Tuesday by cell phone on the deck of Pride II, which was off the coast of South Carolina, he said that as he recalled it, his organization and some private donors had paid for the memorial's materials, including the Douglas fir mast that towers over the quiet park, the polished granite-covered slabs at its feet and the rigging that connects the two.

Pride of Baltimore Inc. agreed to keep up the flower-lined grounds and mast, he says, the city to take care of the stone bases.

Miles added that he and others in Pride of Baltimore noticed as long as four years ago that the current damage was visible, and that when he contacted BDC, he was always told — sympathetically — that the city simply didn't have the money.

"They've been frank, not dismissive," he said. "They've been happy to help set up collaborations. These conversations have been coming and going like the seasons, but we recognize it's like yelling into a strong gale. Whatever the legalistic realities, we've got to find another way."

Foti said that in contacting Baltimore officials — and The Sun — she wished to downplay her own family's importance out of respect for the other people who lost loved ones. "We're not the only ones who suffered," she says.

In a recent letter to The Sun, she suggested that members of the Baltimore community put their heads together to come up with a creative solution.

Attorney Elsaesser said he'd gladly donate to the cause. With the mayor's office planning to partner with Miles' nonprofit, perhaps such an outcome is at hand, even during a time of financial cutbacks.

Even Duane Therriault, a tourist from Durham, N.C., who was visiting the site with his wife, Sheila, on a quiet morning this week, said if it came to that, he'd be glad to pitch in.

"The second I saw this [damage], I thought, 'How would I go about fixing this?' " said Therriault, a retiree. "I couldn't pay for it myself, but if I were driving down the street and saw someone working on it, I'd pull over and help. You can't let this kind of history slip away."