Political dust-up on harbor tragedy

Countless heroes. Two squabbling politicians. And one half-empty reception room.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is throwing a reception today for Baltimore firefighters and naval reservists who came to the rescue after a Seaport Taxi capsized March 6.

But only a handful of firefighters received invitations because City Hall wouldn't provide names to the governor, saying it is too soon for such a ceremony.

Now Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley are accusing each other of playing politics with a tragic accident that claimed five lives and put Fire Department divers through 10 days of peril.

"It appears the mayor does not want the governor to thank these individuals," said Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni. "It's despicable that people are not allowed to be thanked for doing their job."

Steve Kearney, a spokesman for O'Malley, called the allegations "unbelievable."

"The governor's staff needs to understand that everything isn't about politics," Kearney said. "When it comes to honoring firefighters, we defer to Chief Goodwin. He was there. He knows what's right. And we trust his judgment."

Says Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.: "Everyone's just not really in a celebratory mode yet."

The battle is the latest between Republican Ehrlich and Democrat O'Malley, political foes who are likely to square off in the 2006 gubernatorial race. And although no one expects the two to get along, many were surprised to see firefighters sucked into the long-running brawl.

"They're caught in the middle, and they shouldn't be," said Richard G. Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Local 734. "They have nothing to do with the feud between the mayor and the governor."

Both leaders rushed to the scene after the Lady D capsized in high winds near Fort McHenry, killing five passengers. Ehrlich left his wife's side at a hospital to be there, missing the birth of his second son.

Even before the 10-day recovery effort ended, Ehrlich decided he wanted to honor the rescue and recovery workers, his staff said. A day or two after Fire Department divers pulled the last of three missing bodies from the frigid, murky Patapsco River, the governor's staff was setting up the reception.

They contacted Cmdr. Jim McGovern of the Naval Reserve Center near Fort McHenry last week. He promptly provided e-mail addresses and telephone numbers for the 28 reservists involved. All but a couple plan to attend today's reception, he said.

"We're humbled that they would do that," McGovern said. "It's definitely not expected, and we're just glad that we could have helped those people."

The same request got a chillier reception at City Hall. The governor's staff approached Chief Goodwin, who told them to call O'Malley's office.

Christine Massoni, Ehrlich's executive assistant and Greg Massoni's wife, said she contacted Deputy Mayor Jeanne Hitchcock. Massoni said Hitchcock's office assistant called back to decline, saying the firefighters could not attend because they had a training exercise at the time of the event, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the State House in Annapolis.

Hitchcock could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Goodwin said he was not aware of any training exercises. But he said he eventually discussed the request with O'Malley and decided to decline for another reason: He could not come up with a list of names in time.

Goodwin said that 80 to 100 firefighters were involved in the 10-day rescue and recovery effort, and that there simply was not enough time to compile a list and be sure he wasn't leaving someone out. Politics, he said, played no part in the matter.

"It may look that way, but gosh, nothing could be further from the truth," Goodwin said. "It's kind of still painful, and things need to be worked out in our brains. We had a diver injured."

Goodwin said that for the Fire Department, the search for three missing passengers from the Lady D presented a particularly long and emotionally grueling ordeal. Unlike the reservists, who rescued many passengers after the water taxi was overturned by a gale-force gust March 6, firefighters were still at work when department divers recovered the last body nine days later.

"We're pretty much mentally and physically exhausted," Goodwin said, adding that the department has not had its first "critical incident stress debriefing" on the accident. It is scheduled for Monday.

Morale would only take another hit if some firefighters were honored and others were accidentally left out, he said.

"Me, as the commander of all this, I am fearful of almost downright insulting someone," he said. "If you put one person in the spotlight, there's 90 other people who say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' We need those people next time. ... We've lost five more people to tragic fires since this incident. We have to keep everyone motivated because the mission continues."

But Schluderberg, the union leader, said the firefighters have been cheated out of a well-deserved pat on the back.

"So often you do your job, you go home, nobody says anything," Schluderberg said. "Anytime someone of that stature wants to honor you, you certainly want to go."

After City Hall turned her down, Christine Massoni said, she strung together a list of 21 firefighters from media reports and by calling fire houses. She said that she reached about a dozen firefighters and that only four or five will be able to attend because of the short notice.

One of those Massoni never reached was Phil Bildstein, a diver for 14 years who recovered the body of 6-year-old Daniel Bentrem in water so murky that he compared it at the time to a "pot of coffee."

"I hadn't heard about it at all," Bildstein said when a reporter asked him about the event yesterday. "I'm sure my wife would love it. It's kind of nice somebody recognizes us for once. That would be actually kind of cool."

Also unaware of the event was Kenneth Hyde, a dive team member since 1993, who helped rescue a fellow diver who got tangled in a line and passed out in the water.

"It's news to me," he said when asked about the reception. "What time is it?"