Under Water

On Saturday afternoon, around 4:30 or so, we were planning our activities for Sunday.

Paula suggested we go to Fells Point with Zoë, and take her out on the water taxi. Zoë loves riding on the boats.

A few minutes later, Paula's mom called, and told her to turn on the television. A water taxi had flipped over in the freak thunderstorm that had just barreled through town. As of this moment, two of the 25 passengers are known dead, and another three–including a six-year-old boy–are missing and presumed dead. It took 20 minutes for rescuers from the Naval Reserve unit at Fort McHenry–who saw the accident from shore–to get to the overturned pontoon boat, which quickly drifted down the Patapsco toward the Key Bridge and the Chesapeake.

That all of this unfolded within sight of people on land, on a boat designed to be capsize-proof in all but the highest winds, with life jackets all around the passengers, only makes it more tragic. There are tons of “what ifs” here–if the boat coxswain had told everyone to put on lifejackets as he prepared to turn back; if the six-year old had been wearing a lifejacket as required by the Coast Guard; if , if, if. There will be a freighter full of second-guessing, lawsuits aplenty, and five people will still be dead.

I've spent a lot of time on boats in my life. The one big difference between boats and cars is that just about every mistake you could possibly make on a boat has a relatively high probability of injuring or killing someone. The laws of physics and nature (and luck) are a lot less forgiving on the sea.

When I was in the Navy, there was only one death that I really feared–death by drowning while trapped underwater. Being trapped, unable to breathe, and fully aware of the situation…

As a midshipman, I had gone in the “Dilbert Dunker” at Pensacola, an aircraft ditching simulator that flips upside-down under water. You have to count to 10, then unbuckle yourself from your harness, and, defying natural instinct, swim straight down to clear the “wreckage.” It was probably the scariest thing I had done in my young life at the time, and despite the fact that I was a strong swimmer and usually pretty confident in the water, I came close to panicking.

I looked at the pictures in the paper this morning, and shuddered a little. The boat that flipped had an enclosed passenger compartment; some of the windows broke and there was an emergency door in back, so most of the passengers were able to get clear quickly enough.


So the next time we go down to the harbor and take a boat ride, you can be sure that my daughter will be wearing a life vest, and that we won't be riding in a closed-topped water taxi.


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