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Ship slams into New Orleans riverfront mall

boat just before crash

Dozens of people injured

December 14, 1996
Web posted at: 10:10 p.m. EST

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- A freighter slammed into a packed riverfront mall in New Orleans Saturday. Panicked holiday shoppers and tourists jumped into the Mississippi River to escape. Others were trampled in the rush.

It is not immediately clear if anybody was killed, but dozens of people were injured. Seven children and a woman were feared missing.

broken wall

The Coast Guard initially reported that six people were killed. Hours later, Mayor Marc Morial and the Coast Guard said no deaths had been confirmed.

"The Coast Guard is not confirming that there was six people dead," said Petty Officer Renee Gordon. "Those reports from people on scene -- that was their account. But that is not being reported by the Coast Guard."

crash

The Liberian-registered freighter, MV Bright Field, apparently lost its steering power and rammed into the Riverwalk shopping mall around 2:30 p.m. Thousands of people were at the mall at the time of the accident.

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Rescue crews were frantically combing through debris by nightfall, searching for anyone trapped in the tangled debris. They were also scouring the Mississippi River for people who may have leapt into its swift currents.

"We want the public to know that there's been unprecedented, multi-agency response to this collision," Morial said. "This cooperation was speedy and efficient. And at this point there are no confirmed fatalities."

The search was to continue throughout the night. Morial said 57 people were injured.

'It was just panic'

bow

The impact collapsed four floors of the multi-tiered mall, a strip of stores and condominiums overlooking the Mississippi River. About 200 feet of the dock was destroyed.

The freighter's bow slammed into the dock between the Flamingo Casino boat and two cruise ships that were tied up at the dock. The ship's captain blew a distress signal moments before the crash, a warning that sent people scurrying.

"It was just panic. People were trying to get off the casino boat. People began jumping into the river," said Wood Thomas, who was standing in the mall at the time.

wall

Sylvia Brooks also witnessed the crash. "People were falling down. People were picking up babies. People were crying."

A group of Girl Scouts who initially had been reported missing were found safe, but four disabled children could not be found hours after the accident, said City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who was at the scene.

She said the first casualties taken to hospitals were treated for possible heart attacks or injuries from trampling.

Emergency workers rushed to the scene and carried injured tourists off the Flamingo Casino boat, which was docked at the Hilton Hotel at the Riverwalk.

injured

A Coast Guard team was using infrared cameras to search for anyone trapped in the debris. A woman, two children and an infant were reported missing from a room of the Hilton Hotel.

The 700-foot freighter struck in the middle of the Riverwalk at Cafe du Monde. The cafe's walls collapsed, its girders twisted.

The Riverwalk opened in 1986 at a cost of $58 million. Stores include Abercrombie & Fitch, The Sharper Image, and Eddie Bauer.

The freighter was tied up after the crash, and several tugs worked to hold it in place. Other accidents have occurred in which boats have struck the riverfront but none was as devastating as Saturday's accident.

A hot line has been set up for families to call. The number is 504-586-4601.

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