A water taxi with 25 people aboard capsized in Baltimore's Inner Harbor after a violent gust of wind struck the boat, leaving passengers frantically clinging to the overturned pontoon in frigid waters. Four people are believed to have died.
Rescuers said they saw up to a dozen passengers climbing across the bottom of the 11.8m pontoon after winds gusting up to 80kph on Saturday afternoon flipped the boat over. The water temperature was around 5?C.
"It was like the twilight zone. It was eerie how the weather just overtook the vessel," said Command Master Chief Melvin Johnson, who was among a group of Naval reservists training nearby when the boat overturned.
Petty Officer Edward Mendez said he watched the gusts toss the vessel "like a little toy boat getting blown out of control."
Johnson said reservists immediately began throwing on life jackets and raced to boats to help. Once reservists got near the capsized water taxi, they began pulling people to safety, he said.
Twenty-two people were removed from the water, including one woman who died at a nearby hospital. Three people were missing, and Baltimore Fire Chief William Goodwin said officials did not expect to find any more survivors.
Two people were in critical condition.
Goodwin remarked on the coincidence that the reservists happened to see the accident. "Had no one been looking, this tragedy would have been far more tragic than it was," he said.
"It's fortunate there was not a greater loss of life when you consider the force of the storm," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
The water was choppy and winds up to 80kph blew through the harbor when the boat capsized at around 4pm, said National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Rogowski.
"The wind just took it," Johnson said.
The boat was part of a fleet of 11 Seaport Taxis operated by the Living Classroom Foundation, said the organization's president, James Bond. The taxis transport about 250,000 people, mostly tourists, every year.
The boat was carrying 25 people, including two crew members who survived. The boat was equipped with life preservers, but passengers are not required to wear them.
"No one on the craft had time to get their life preservers on," said Major Frederick Bealfeld of the Baltimore Police Department.
Bond said the boat has a capacity of 25 passengers and two crew members.
"She was ready for an inspection on Monday and in shape the way she should be," he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board planned to investigate the accident.
The Inner Harbor is one of the nation's oldest seaports, and has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Millions of tourists visit the Inner Harbor each year, where they can walk along brick promenades on the shore and frequent the many shops, seafood restaurants, museums and other attractions in the harbor area.
Water taxis ferry visitors to the many points on the Inner Harbor, including Fort McHenry, Fells Point and the world-renowned National Aquarium.
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