The water shuttle that capsized in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in March, killing five people, was carrying 700 pounds too much weight when it was slammed by the high winds of a sudden storm, according to a federal report released yesterday.
The operators of the Lady D followed the 25-passenger limit set by the Coast Guard. But the Coast Guard set that number too high because it had used inaccurate and outdated estimates of average passenger weight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Coast Guard had used a 1960s-era estimate that an average passenger weighs 140 pounds when it certified the stability of the 36-foot-long, 8-foot-wide pontoon boat.
An investigation into the accident revealed that the average weight of the 14 men, eight women and three children aboard the Lady D was 28 pounds more than the Coast Guard's estimates, meaning that a boat tested as safe for 3,500 pounds actually had 4,200 pounds aboard, the NTSB report said. That's the equivalent of about five too many people.
"Vessels operated in an overloaded condition are exposed to a higher capsize risk," said the report by the NTSB, which did not reach a final conclusion about the cause of the accident. A final report is due in about six months.
The agency recommended yesterday that the Coast Guard "take immediate action" to bring its average passenger weight figures up to date and make sure that none of the 270 other commercial pontoon boats operating nationally are using excessively high passenger limits.
"The safety board is concerned that the Coast Guard is not using a realistic average occupant weight in calculating the number of people that can be safely carried on pontoon vessels," said the report.
"In addition to the significantly higher average weights found on the Lady D accident voyage, U.S. government reports show that Americans of all ages are much heavier today than [in 1960] ... average weight has increased dramatically in the last 40 years," said the report, which was released late yesterday.
In its report, the NTSB suggested using an average weight of 174 pounds per passenger, noting that in 2002 the mean body weight of men was 191 pounds and of women 164 pounds.
Lt. Ron Mench, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said last night he couldn't comment on the report because he was not sure whether his agency has received it. "We'd normally take the time to study it before issuing a response," said Mench.
Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the NTSB, said the recommendations are nonbinding and intended to "open a conversation" with the Coast Guard about revising passenger weight standards. The final report might suggest more changes to safety procedures, Peduzzi said.
The accident was the first fatality involving the city's water shuttle services, and it seriously injured four passengers - including a 9-year-old girl, who was thrown into a coma - in addition to the five killed.
The tragedy sparked a lawsuit against the owner of the Seaport Taxi, the Living Classrooms Foundation, from everyone on board the boat except the captain. That lawsuit was settled in October for an undisclosed amount.
The Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating city youth, stopped running harbor shuttles at the end of October. Its longtime competitor, Ed Kane's Water Taxi service, continues to run water taxis to sites around the Inner Harbor, and is competing - with Living Classrooms as a partner - with other bidders to become the city's sole water shuttle operator.
Adding weight to the keels of boats can make them more stable. But pontoon boats have no keels, and adding extra weight to them can make them less stable under some circumstances, said Lt. Joe DuFresne, chief of small passenger boat inspections for the Coast Guard's Baltimore regional office.
"If the weight is low, extra weight helps," DuFresne said. "But if it's too high, extra weight can make a boat less stable."
As the winds rose during the storm in March, the Lady D began to roll in the waves and then heeled toward its starboard side, according to the report.
Some witnesses told The Sun after the accident that passengers rushed from one side to the other, trying to stabilize the rocking boat, before it flipped.
Greg Pettibon, one of the survivors, said yesterday: "Anything that can be done to improve safety is outstanding. I don't blame anyone right now."