Theodore Grillo's 45-foot cabin cruiser was drifting slowly down the Chesapeake Bay just south of Annapolis early yesterday morning on the start of a weekend fishing cruise. As three friends made sandwiches and read navigational charts below deck, Grillo fixed his gaze ahead searching for crab pots and water markers.
The waters were calm and dark in the minutes after midnight. Suddenly, without warning, the massive hull of the 13,000-ton French container ship Bunker Hill loomed above. Grillo punched his horn quickly. The Bunker Hill retorted with four sharp blasts.
It was too late.
"The steel hull was right against me," Grillo recalled. "It just pushed up against my arm and head. I could feel the metal against me. It scraped my knuckles. Then it wrapped my whole boat around it. I yelled out for my friends, but they were just screaming in the water."
What was left of the crushed cabin cruiser shook free from the giant ship moments later. Grillo and his three companions, all from Baltimore, were pulled from the boat and out of the water by the container ship's all-French crew, bruised and shook up but none seriusly injured.
The Frenchmen offered the four Baltimore fishermen blankets and drinks, but because of the language barrier, Grillo said, not an understandable word passed between them. "I wouldn't know," Said Grillo, "if they apologized to me."
The container ship suffered no damage. The cabin cruiser was not so lucky. It sank 50 feet to the bottom of the bay.
U.S. Coast Guard officials, who arrived on the scene shortly after the crash, have not determined if either boat was at fault. "The little boat was just sliced in two,; said Coast Guard Lt. James Mudget.
Grillo, 40, who works as a home improvements contractor in Baltimore, said his boat was carrying fishing equipment and cameras. Neither Grillo nor the Coast Guard would provide the names of the other three men who were on the boat.
A spokesman for the French firm which owns the 538-foot Bunker Hill, Compagnie Maritime Des Chargeurs Reunis, would not comment on the incident. Officials of Seatrain Lines, Inc., which runs the ship, said the vessel had 30 crew members, was traveling from Baltimore to New York, and carried thousands of tons of cargo.
The fishing voyage began at Sparrows Point in Baltimore shortly after 9 o'clock on Friday night. The four men planned to travel to Cape Charles, Va. "I've been driving boats in the dark for 15 years," Grillo said. His "white and very visible boat" was traveling 6 miles per hour, and had a 200 candelight spotlight, Grillo said.
Grillo said that because the crabbing season was under way on the bay, he took special care to watch for crab pots and other obstructions in the water. At the time of the accident, he said, he was watching a slashing channel marker in the distance.
When the Bunker Hill's hull suddenly appeared at the right side of his cabin cruiser, it resembled the "edge of a door," Grillo said, and then "expanded to the breadth of a house."
After the accident, Grillo found himself still standing on the remains of his boat. He tossed life preservers to his friends in the water.
Coast Guard officials said the Bunker Hill radioed for assistance at 12:40 a.m. The collision occurred about one mile south of Thomas Point Light.
"It happened so fast," Grillo said sadly. "A great big ship just ate up our boat. It was like running over a puppy on the Beltway, that's what it was like."