It drives home the fact that life is a gift . . .

March 1, 2004
IAQ Sales Rep and Navy Reservist Henry Zecher Helped Rescue Victims of the Baltimore Harbor Water Taxi Accident Henry Zecher is an indoor air quality

IAQ Sales Rep and Navy Reservist Henry Zecher Helped Rescue Victims of the Baltimore Harbor Water Taxi Accident Henry Zecher is an indoor air quality sales representative for Cropp-Metcalfe, Fairfax, VA. He spends most of his days educating homeowners about IAQ and performing whole-house comfort check-ups,. Two days each month are different. He spends those days with the naval reserves, as part of the facilities team at the Baltimore Naval Reserve Center at Ft. McHenry. He’s “on loan” to the reserve center from his unit, Navy Mobile Construction 23, based at Ft. Belvoir, VA. Zecher served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence for four years, finishing his active duty in 1992. He enlisted in the reserves following September 11, 2001. Saturday, March 6 started like many other days at the reserve center. Henry had been working on an air conditioning project. The day was winding down, and he was just finishing up some paperwork, when a late afternoon thunderstorm hit the harbor, in his words, “as if it had a purpose.” “It rained earlier in the day, but it had cleared up around midday. It was a little breezy, but the sun was shining and it was basically a pretty nice early spring day. Then the storm blew in. “The water taxi had just left port. It was maybe 1,000 feet from shore when the storm hit. The captain tried to turn and head back, but the wind, which was suddenly gusting over 50 mph, caught the boat and flipped it over. “Some of our guys at the reserve center saw it happen. About two dozen of us ran down to our dock and got into an LCM-8, which is an amphibious landing craft that was made famous during the D-Day invasions in World War II. It’s not designed for rescue missions, but it’s all we had. “When we got out to the capsized water taxi, there were some people in the water and some people on top of the boat. They started yelling to us that there were people trapped underneath. “We lowered the front ramp of the LCM so we could get to them. The wind was blowing and it was raining so hard that it actually stung when it hit you. The water temperature was 43F. Hypothermia will set in in less than 15 minutes at that temperature. We threw a lifeline to the water taxi’s passengers, so we could keep them close to us, which was difficult because of the waves and the strong current. “I went up front on the ramp, and we managed to get the people out of the water and off the top of the boat. “Some of our guys went in the water to try to get to the people who were trapped underneath the water taxi. Jerry Neblett was the first to dive in, and how he withstood the cold water for so long I’ll never know. But he couldn’t find a way in. We decided to use the ramp of our boat to lift the water taxi so we could get underneath. The ramp was never designed for that, but sometimes you have to improvise. “When we lifted the water taxi, some debris floated out -- purses, backpacks, that sort of thing. And then three people came out. One was a middle-aged man, I never did get his name. One was an 8-year-old girl, Sarah Bentrem, who fortunately is still with us. She’s in critical condition but she’s still hanging in there. The last to come out was Lisa Pierce, a 34-year-old woman from Lyndhurst, NJ. A couple of guys managed to get Sarah out of the water; my chief petty officer and I pulled Lisa out. Commander Decker and Chief Johnson started performing CPR on Lisa. “By this time a rescue boat had joined us. Lisa was breathing on her own when we got her onto a stretcher and lifted her onto the rescue boat. Once we got all of our guys secured and on board, we turned back toward shore. The people who had stayed behind at the reserve center had turned the drill hall into a makeshift triage. We went around trying to do a little first aid for the victims. We gave them coffee and blankets, that sort of thing. We got them all secured and taken to the hospital. A few of our guys had to be taken to Bethesda Naval Medical Center to be treated for exposure. “I’d say the whole thing, from the time we first saw the water taxi go over until we had the survivors back on shore and in triage, took maybe 45 minutes. But it seemed like hours. “I didn’t sleep at all that night. When we were trying to get Lisa Pierce out of the water, her body turned towards us and her head went over to the side. I was looking right into her eyes. It’s going to be with me for the rest of my life. Every time I close my eyes I can still see her face. The sight of a young woman floating face down in the water like that . . . it’s hard to describe. It really drives home the fact that life is a gift. “Afterwards I kept scouring the newspapers and Internet, to learn what would happen with Lisa. Unfortunately, she never recovered and died about a week after the accident. I was devastated when I had heard that she had passed away. When you’re involved with one person in particular, it makes it a little more personal. “I’ve been very humbled and gratified by the outpouring of love and support that I’ve received. It’s been a little overwhelming, the way people have reached out and shown their appreciation for what we did. I’m uncomfortable with the hero title. I was simply a spoke on a wheel of a much larger machine and I did the best I could. I’m grateful that we were able to save as many people as we did. It’s a blessing that it happened close enough to us that we were able to get to them quickly. “Twenty-five people went into the water that day. Five died. The fact that we were able to save as many people as we did is what makes it possible for me to sleep at night.”