Miracle in New Orleans Freighter crash: Conditions unlike Harborplace, but textbook case of crisis management.

December 17, 1996

A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE is how folks in New Orleans are referring to the weekend accident at the Riverwalk mall there. To understand why is to see the news photos of the fancy shopping complex, crushed like a soda can by a grain freighter run amok, and to learn that no one was killed even though the collision happened in midday as shoppers lunched and browsed at the height of the holiday season.

The scenario was dramatic and horrific: A 70,000-ton grain ship, the Bright Field, as long as two football fields, lost power due to an oil pump failure. The roiling current of the Mississippi River swept the ship toward a casino riverboat with 800 passengers and the mall (on the site of the former Louisiana World's Fair), filled with 1,000 shoppers.

Thanks to the masterful maneuvers of the pilot, the barge narrowly missed the gaming ship before plowing into the mall. Parts of an adjoining hotel and parking garage also collapsed. Although 120 people were injured, no one was believed to be dead or missing.

For Marylanders, this accident poses a question: Could it happen here? Is Baltimore's Harborplace as vulnerable as the slightly larger Riverwalk, both owned by Columbia-based Rouse Co.?

Though some urban waterfront malls may have to reassess safety precautions, Baltimore's conditions are vastly different. The Inner Harbor is a calm oasis next to the churning, serpentine Mississippi. It has far less boat traffic than the Riverwalk stretch, near the busy Port of New Orleans. And its shallow bottom precludes visits from massive freighters that perch beyond the Key Bridge.

Still, there are lessons that all cities can take from this mishap. Observers praised New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and police, fire and Coast Guard operations for their calm, rapid and resolute response. They helped turn what might have been a tragedy before Christmas into a modern-day wonder during a season that celebrates wonders.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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