On a pitch-black night, the Portland Express Water Taxi was slicing through calm waters between Peaks Island and Fort Gorges with a full load of six passengers returning from a wedding when the captain screamed and the boat suddenly lurched violently to port.
“The pilot said, ‘Oh, my God!’ and we hit something,” said Nicole Clegg, communications director for the city of Portland. “The assumption was it was a boat, but those of us in the cabin didn’t see anything.”
Clegg was one of those on board late Saturday night, as were 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and her husband, Portland financier S. Donald Sussman.
The collision of the water taxi and a 20-foot recreational boat remains under investigation by the Coast Guard, which continued interviewing witnesses Monday but released few details. Investigators concluded alcohol was not a factor in the crash, but shed no new light on why the boat operators did not see each other.
Photographs of the two boats show relatively minor damage to the starboard side of the water taxi. The bow of the Grady White was ripped open, suggesting the pleasure boat collided head-on with the side of the taxi.
After the crash, as the other passengers made sure nobody had fallen overboard and that the boat was not taking on water, Clegg started attending to the injured — Sussman and former Pingree staff member Jackie Potter.
Jesse Connolly, who is Pingree’s chief of staff and Clegg’s husband, had been facing the stern when he felt the jolt.
“We figured out we had hit another boat. We were trying to make sure nobody had ended up in the water from either boat,” Connolly said. Those on the taxi could hear screams coming from the other boat, but even when he stood, he couldn’t see the other boat, Connolly said.
He called 911.
A strong smell of gasoline enveloped the passengers and some worried the boat might ignite. Gas jugs stored on deck had spilled in the collision.
The Portland Fire Department was alerted at 10:14 p.m., that two boats had collided and several people were injured.
The main fireboat, the City of Portland, was dispatched at 10:17 p.m. carrying the marine crew and several land-based firefighters. Behind it came the Cavallaro, a smaller boat used mainly to transport patients from the city’s islands, with a contingent of rescue workers.
Capt. Michael Nixon and Engine 1 had just finished a rescue call on India Street when they heard the call for more personnel at the State Pier. Nixon said that fortunately one of his crew members is cross-trained to operate the Cavallaro.
The fireboats headed into the inky blackness. The firefighters had only a general idea of where the damaged boats and their injured passengers were, and they were drifting.
“It’s not like the corner of Marginal Way and Forest Avenue,” Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said Monday. “I believe the location given was between Fort Gorges and Portland Pipeline. That’s a large area.”
It was slow going because the boats had to move carefully in case somebody was in the water and to minimize waves, which would make it harder to see someone in the water, LaMoria said.
The City of Portland used its Forward Looking Infrared Camera, which picks up differences in heat, so a person in the water — or in this case, a boat that had recently been running — would light up a monitor in the wheelhouse.
Firefighters spotted the pleasure boat — the Miss M — between Fort Gorges and Fort Allen Park on the Eastern Promenade at 10:26 p.m.
As the rescue workers on the City of Portland tended to Sally Handy of Boulder, Colo. — the boat’s passenger, who was seriously injured in the crash — the Cavallaro continued on, searching for the water taxi.
The first boat to find the taxi was actually a Casco Bay Lines ferry, which was passing through the area. The ferry stayed until the Cavallaro and the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.
As the Cavallaro pulled up, Nixon recognized Clegg and called out, “Nicole?”
Clegg said hearing Nixon’s familiar voice gave her a great sense of relief.
The patients and the rest of the passengers were brought onto the Cavallaro for the trip back to the Maine State Pier.
Nixon said he did not learn that one of the people on board was Pingree until they were headed back to shore.
The Coast Guard has not identified the operator of the taxi, but Portland Express Water Taxi is owned and operated by Gene Willard, who could not be reached Monday. A person answering the water taxi’s telephone number said he was covering for Willard for a few days.
The Coast Guard performed a breathalyzer on the water taxi’scaptain because it is a commercial vessel under Coast Guard jurisdiction. It came back negative, said Lt. Scott McCann.
The operator of the pleasure boat, Christopher Pizey, was not given a breath test. However, when he arrived on shore, a Portland police officer performed a field sobriety test and it showed no signs of impairment, said Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch.
A Maine Marine Patrol investigator said he responded to the hospital and interviewed Pizey and saw no signs of alcohol use.
Handy, who was in satisfactory condition at Maine Medical Center on Sunday, was not listed as a patient Monday.
Sussman and Potter were treated at Maine Med and released. Sussman is the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
As frightening as the crash was for those on board the vessels, it could have been much worse.
“I’ve been in a lot of tough situations in my life before, and I’m still reconciling what happened,” Connolly said. “You play it over in your mind and what could have happened. I think frankly we were all pretty lucky there weren’t more serious injuries.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 10 to identify which side of the water taxi was damaged.