Weather halts search of mall hit by ship But authorities remain confident that all victims have been recovered

December 17, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS -- Heavy rain and wind made already unstable rubble even more treacherous yesterday at the site of a giant freighter's collision with a crowded river-front shopping mall, forcing rescuers to postpone the search for survivors or victims.

But even as darkness fell with about half the 200-foot-long damaged area still unsearched, rescuers said they were increasingly confident that they would find no one trapped alive or dead in the mass of crumbled concrete and twisted metal, some of it held in place by the freighter that caused the accident.

The freighter Bright Field, longer than two football fields and carrying 64,000 tons of grain, plowed into the Riverwalk shopping mall Saturday afternoon, coming to a stop just 70 feet short of a floating casino packed with hundreds of gamblers.

The collision destroyed a section of the river front, including part of the mall and a parking deck, and damaged part of a hotel. The panic, as shoppers and diners saw the massive freighter looming over them, its horns sounding a warning, caused more than 100 injuries. Few people were hurt from the impact.

The bad weather stopped rescue efforts on both the river front and in the water, because rescue leaders were afraid to send divers under the ruined wharf.

But, even as the shifting rubble cut short the search, rescue leaders doubted that they would find anyone inside. They used listening devices like those used in earthquake rescues and mine cave-ins to search for anyone who might be trapped. The freighter, which is registered in Liberia, is being held in place against the wreckage for now by tugboats.

Almost all the missing people reported to police have been found, though there is still a chance that a body could surface.

Investigators went into more detail yesterday as to how the Bright Field lost its steering.

John Hammerschmidt, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said the freighter slammed into the Riverwalk when its oil pump lost pressure and the pilot was unable to properly steer.

Hammerschmidt said that a backup oil pump and automatic control system came on, but that the control system reduced the engine's speed, which cut the ship's ability to maneuver.

Ted Davisson, the river pilot aboard the vessel, used what control he had to avoid two docked cruise ships loaded with 1,700 passengers and a riverboat casino with 800 aboard, port officials said.

Davisson dropped the ship's anchors and sounded an emergency horn to warn people on shore.

Coast Guard officials have said it appears Davisson was not at fault.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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