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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

NTSB Press Conference

Aired March 7, 2004 - 08:29   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Renay San Miguel. "Weekend House Call" is coming up next right after these headlines.
Swift currents have complicated efforts to locate three people missing in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They are presumed dead after a crowded water taxi flipped over yesterday in a sudden squall. One other person is known dead.

We are expecting a National Transportation Safety Board news conference coming up shortly. You are looking at live pictures right now as it is about to get under way. We are hearing right now from the NTSB. Let's go to that.

LAUREN PADUZZI, NTSB SPOKESWOMAN: Good morning. You guys ready?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

PADUZZI: OK.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the accident?

PADUZZI: OK. Good morning. The NTSB is fully integrated into our accident investigation. We arrived last night and we have all of our personnel on scene, right now. We're coordinating with the very aggressive recovery efforts that are being conducted right now by the Baltimore police and fire department, the Coast Guard and the Department of National Resources. They will be actively pursuing recovery efforts all day long using a combination of divers, cadaver dogs, boats, and helicopters.

Our focus today will be on witness interviews. Because of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of memory we try to get in and talk to the folks who were either the passengers or the direct witnesses of this accident as soon as possible. So, we are at all of the hospitals where the passengers are still hospitalized or we're seeking them out if they have been -- if they've already left the hospital and at their homes. So, we'll be doing extensive witness interviewing all day today.

There are four factors of our investigation into the safety issue. We've combined operations and human performance into one task force, survival factors is our second focus and the engineering issues on the vessel itself are our third focus. The vessel is still capsized; it has not been overturned, yet. We're still conducting physical review of its present condition and we will be working with the Department of Natural Resources and the Coast Guard to right the vessel at a later time. One of the issues of righting the vessel is the fact that there's still fuel onboard and we want to ensure that there's no environmental impact when the vessel is approached. So, we'll be very cautious about ensuring that. Are there any questions?

QUESTION: What can you tell us about what you've already learned from any of the passengers, eyewitnesses, the captain or assistant captain?

PADUZZI: At this time it's very much at the preliminary stages. We want to ensure the passengers are out of any kind of danger while they're hospitalized, as they're able to speak with us. However we can confirm the facts that we know last night. There were 25 people onboard, including passengers and crew. There were life jackets onboard, they were not deployed, so we are aware of that. There were weather conditions and we're reviewing those with both the weather stations around here, as well as NOAA, to get as much weather information as we can. We're putting together the full NTSB safety investigation that we always do. We'll be looking at the records of the vessel, be looking at the records of the crew, we'll look at the training and the procedures and the operations of the owner/operators. We'll be looking at the weather conditions. We'll add extensive witness testimony, both the passengers and those that observed it. And we'll also be doing extensive testing ourselves. Later on our folks will be taking similar taxi rides, looking at the route, looking at the condition and trying to do everything they can to understand the actual conditions at the time of the accident.

QUESTION: This is a pontoon boat, in your experience, how does this type of boat do in a severe thunderstorm?

PADUZZI: Well, a pontoon boat is a fairly stable vessel, however wind condition is certainly an issue. We had fairly high gusts of winds yesterday, we're going to be looking at that, but also the physical condition of the vessel itself when it was out on the water. And so that's why we're taking our time to inspect it physically before we right it. Extensive photographs, looking at the damage, et cetera.

QUESTION: Would you characterize this as a unusual (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

PADUZZI: No accident is usual, each accident is very unique. And it's also important to know, rarely is an accident a single event. There are usually a series of causes that lead up to the event, and so we will not share what the probable cause until we can rule in every possible factor or rule out every possible factor.

Once again, after 35 years of investigation the NTSB can truly tell you, there are never a simple accident, there are usually many factors that lead up to the accident.

QUESTION: This investigation is going to take, what you're estimating, probably a year, but can an event like this cause reforms to be -- to occur here in the Baltimore harbor?

PADUZZI: The NTSB is not the regulator, as you know we're the bully pulpit for safety and we issue safety recommendations. During the course of our investigation if we determine that there's any significant emerging issue that must be addressed immediately, we will issue a safety recommendations during the interim of the actual investigation. We will obviously be working closely with the Coast Guard and the other parties to the investigation as we go through this. If there's a safety issue that's immediate, we will address it immediately through a recommendation.

QUESTION: Do you know who has authority for the safety regulations for a water taxi, operation such as this?

PADUZZI: There aren't a lot of regulations involved, here. We're working with the Coast Guard and the Department of Natural Resources to verify the specific policies and regulations involved. Generally speaking, these vessels are -- fall under what's called "Subchapter T" passenger vessel -- the master or captain of the vessel was a licensed -- would have been a licensed captain for under a certain tonnage weight of the vessel, and so, we're reviewing all the restrictions. There's not a lot of restriction on this type of passenger taxi service.

QUESTION: Coast Guard have any authority over such things as whether you have to put on a life preserver or not?

PADUZZI: In this case they were are required to have life preservers onboard, but it is within the -- there's no requirement to wear a life preserver when you're in the actual crossing, but life preservers were required, it was a 25 passenger maximum -- or 25 total passenger maximum for the vessel, there were 25 onboard.

QUESTION: Is that Coast Guard that decides that, those things you said about the 25 max and the having...

PADUZZI: In this particular vessel the max is based on the type of vessel, the manufacturer and the weight, et cetera, that it can hold. It was certified for 25 total passengers onboard or total people onboard and, again, the Coast Guard regulation is that there's one life jacket per.

QUESTION: Have there been other events dealing with water taxies in other part of the country in recent years?

PADUZZI: There are constantly events with these types of events, I mean quite honestly this is, unfortunately, all too similar with the issue with Staten Island in which, once again, we have passengers that are crossing in a -- this is essentially a small ferry, and we're very concerned about the overall safety. Boats are different, vessels are vehicles -- than other transit, and I'm unfortunately seeing a trend as the chairman with passenger safety when we're crossing the water versus being on the road, so something we're definitely reviewing.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything you observed about the condition of the vessel right now? As it sits, obviously it's not been righted, but you what can see? We can't get as close to it, obviously as you have.

PADUZZI: It's very difficult to discern, right now, all we have visibility on are the pontoons which are on the surface of the water. The tide went out, the vessel is grounded -- it was grounded in. The actual height and clearance of the vessel is 10 feet, and it's a 10- foot clearance requirement, so it's not a very tall vessel and if you've seen images of it you can tell, it's more after floating platform than anything else. But, it is grounded and so we require the tide to be up in order to free it. We anticipate some structural damage from the grounding, and we want to verify that is caused by the grounding and not by the accident itself, so we're looking at that.

QUESTION: Pontoons that are visible, the part you can see, does everything appear to be normal and intact?

PADUZZI: There is some damage -- there is some damage and, again, we're trying to discern whether that was because of the grounding or the accident and we're taking a lot of physical approaches to it. We're taking underwater photography, we're taking surface photography, we've had a physical review by the investigator in charge who was out there last night. This is Bill Woody, who's our investigator in charge, he's assembled his team and he was at the vessel last night.

QUESTION: Have you begun talking to witnesses (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

PADUZZI: We are conducting witness interviews and we're collecting all that data. We're also reviewing all of the interviews that occurred last night by both the other parties involved, the Coast Guard, the police department and the like, so we'll be gathering all of that data together.

QUESTION: I apologize if you covered this because I was doing my shot there, but besides wind, was there rain and -- accompanying this, do you know?

PADUZZI: There was a -- essentially a storm front moving through with fairly significant wind and we're pulling all the Doppler records and getting the precise conditions, as it was. Other than that, we're not focusing on other weather issues, I mean, obviously we're going to look at the current, we're going to look at the general condition of the water. We're also working with the owner/operators to determine their procedures and policies that they have for weather condition operation. We'll be working extensively today with them to determine their policies, procedures, and the training that they would have.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) said earlier these water taxis have a pristine record, have you investigated a pontoon boat accident before?

PADUZZI: Not in Baltimore Harbor, that I'm aware of. We've had other pontoon accidents.

BILL WOODY, NTSB INVESTIGATOR: Yes, we have.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE)

WOODY: We had one serious recreational vessel on pontoons that was carrying around 20 people but this was several years ago, and again, there was a passing storm that caused the vessel to capsize. QUESTION: Where was this?

WOODY: This was near Huntsville, Alabama on the Tennessee River.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

WOODY: On the Tennessee River.

QUESTION: How long ago was it?

WOODY: Pardon me.

QUESTION: How long ago was it?

WOODY: It must be roughly, eight, nine, ten years ago.

QUESTION: Did anyone die in that particular accident?

WOODY: Yes, there were, I think, bare in mind it's been many years, but I think there was like seven, eight, or nine deaths, some -- order of that magnitude.

SAN MIGUEL: You have been listening to National Transportation Safety Board officials briefing the media on the investigation into the water taxi that capsized yesterday during a storm in Baltimore's inner harbor, spilling 25 people into the harbor, 22 were rescued, but one has died, and there are there are three who are still missing. The investigation focusing now on witness interviews, records of the vessel and crew, and the vessel, by the way, is still capsized, there's fuel still onboard, they want to make sure that does not spill into the harbor.

Our Kathleen Koch is live in Baltimore Harbor. We will hear the latest on the investigation, from her, at 9:00 a.m. Eastern time when Kelli Arena and I return on "CNN Sunday Morning."

Well, we're going to take a break and then "Weekend House Calls" will be joined in progress.

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