Divers and an unmanned robotic device prepare to search the Patapsco River for the three missing victims of the Seaport Taxi that capsized Saturday. "We've been fighting the elements," diver Samuel Burrell said yesterday.
Divers and an unmanned robotic device prepare to search the Patapsco River for the three missing victims of the Seaport Taxi that capsized Saturday. "We've been fighting the elements," diver Samuel Burrell said yesterday. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston)
Fred and Lois Rao sat quietly in the warm afternoon sun yesterday along Fort McHenry's shore and tried not to cry as they spoke of Saturday's capsized Seaport Taxi.

Lois gripped a rosary in her left hand and a bouquet of flowers in her right. Both wore sunglasses, but nothing hid their grief as tears slipped down their cheeks.

The Vienna, Va., couple sat vigil yesterday on the sixth fruitless day of the Baltimore Fire Department's search for three tourists presumed to have died in the Patapsco River after a sudden storm Saturday flipped the Seaport Taxi, the Lady D.

The Raos are friends with two missing passengers, a soon-to-be-engaged couple who were scheduled to attend the wedding of the Raos' daughter this year.

"I don't have the courage to throw them in," said Lois Rao, 58, as she clutched the bouquet to her chest. "We hoped maybe today they would find them."

So did Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. But a day of searching and nearly two hours of 51-foot dives for objects that recovery officials thought might be bodies produced only two tree stumps, wood boards and "two large 4-foot-long mounds of mud," Goodwin said.

"We're a little frustrated," Goodwin said. "We've even frustrated the best technology in the world."

Recovery workers had several things going for them yesterday: warm surface temperatures, calm water and the sharp infrared eyes of a sophisticated underwater robotic rover. Goodwin set up his statue of St. Jude -- patron of hopeless causes -- on a desk inside the bustling fireboat station at Fort McHenry, headquarters for divers who braved tangled lines and 36-degree water to recover the missing.

The missing are 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va.; Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Homewood, Ill.; and Andrew M. Roccella, 26, of Virginia, who was soon to be Schillings' fiance.

Sarah Bentrem, Daniel's 8-year-old sister, remained in critical condition at University of Maryland Medical Center yesterday.

Confirmed dead are Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., who died after being pulled from the water Saturday, and her 34-year-old daughter, Lisa Pierce of Lyndhurst, N.J., who died late Monday after 2 1/2 days in critical condition.

The sixth day of searching began on a promising note when Goodwin announced that three objects had been identified by a $5 million remote-controlled rover steered by technicians on the hulking 400-foot Tyco Telecommunications ship that has assisted divers since Wednesday.

Mayor Martin O'Malley spent much of the morning with Goodwin and went to the site close to the Canton shore that has become the focus of the week's most extensive efforts. That search area is 70 yards from where fire officials believe the Lady D capsized, which is slightly farther east from Fort McHenry than first thought. A rapidly moving thunderstorm struck the 2-ton water taxi shortly after it left the Fort McHenry dock on its trip to Fells Point. Strong gusts flipped the boat as its captain, Francis Deppner, 74, of Middle River, attempted to steer it to shore after receiving late-arriving storm warnings from the National Weather Service.

Seaport Taxi did not resume service yesterday as first announced but hopes to ferry passengers today from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point, said a spokeswoman with Living Classrooms Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the ferries. The Fort McHenry route will not be traveled.

A couple visiting from Atlanta since Monday took the only other such ferry available yesterday, riding a Water Taxi company boat from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point. They visited Fort McHenry for a tour of the historic site and an impromptu glance at rescue efforts.

"We felt perfectly safe," said Frank Walsh, who, with his wife Ann Marie, were in town for a conference at the Baltimore Convention Center. "They need to let [Seaport Taxi] get back to business." He said he believed the capsizing was a fluke that probably wouldn't happen again "for a 100 years."

That would suit divers just fine.

A team of five divers yesterday described a harrowing week of crawling and clawing the silt-covered bottom in grim, and increasingly futile, expectation of grasping a body. Divers have made a total of 20 descents into the murky waters off Fort McHenry this week. They maneuver blindly in zero-visibility directed by sonar technicians tracking their movements. They searched six locations yesterday, but found nothing.

The two divers that went down yesterday exceeded the typical 20-minute dives that had been made all week. The only injuries this week have been two burst eardrums. But yesterday Samuel Burrell emerged unable to feel his hands and feet.

"It was very, very cold," said Burrell, 46, who dove for approximately an hour.

The day before, Burrell's air-supply chord became ensnared in the line connecting the rover to its ship. A backup diver dove and freed him.

"It got personal," he said. "We've been fighting the elements."

Goodwin said divers would be assisted today by a classified military device as they return to the water to examine 14 more possible sites. The device had been scheduled to arrive today, but Tyco Telecommunications decided to stay an extra day. "We have some higher hopes" for today, Goodwin said.

But he did acknowledge the search might soon end.

"The time will come," the fire chief said, "for me to make a tough decision."