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Coast Guard commander satisfied no one tampered with log book

December 21, 1996

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A Coast Guard commander doesn’t believe anyone tampered with the engine log of the ship that crashed into a riverside shopping mall.

But Cmdr. Ken Parris was not asked at an inquiry Friday if he noticed that a page was missing when he checked the book right after the accident.

The missing page _ neatly cut out of the bound, handwritten log _ covered the two days before the Dec. 14 accident. It has caused an uproar among several lawyers, who say the page might have been used to record problems with an engine lubrication pump that failed, leaving the ship almost impossible to steer.

After he testified, Parris, the senior investigating officer on the accident, told The Associated Press that he did not remember if a page was missing.

``I am satisfied there was no tampering,″ Parris said in the interview.

Parris was among the first aboard after the 763-foot ship, loaded with 56,000 tons of corn, lost power and crashed into the Riverwalk mall. At least 116 people were injured and more than a dozen shops and a small part of the Hilton Hotel were destroyed.

Also Friday, a diver at the accident site was trapped for 15 minutes after he got tangled in some of the debris and pulled some collapsed building on top of him, said Lt. Cmdr. Doug Blakemore of the Coast Guard. Two other divers freed him, and he was not injured.

The divers are using sonar equipment in the murky Mississippi River to determine just how much of the ship is holding up the collapsed mall before moving the freighter.

Parris told the joint Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board that he dictated the contents for the day of the crash into a tape recorder.

He acknowledged during questioning that there were a couple of minor differences between the log now and what he dictated. That could be because he could not read the handwriting when he was making his oral memo, he said.

The missing page was discovered Wednesday during a break in the hearing by Rob Barnett, an attorney for the state’s river pilots. He demanded to see the original log rather than the copies provided to the inquiry board.

Barnett said Friday the entries prior to the accident were written in more detail and were more neatly done than the entry for the day of the accident. He also noticed the handwriting had changed.

``That caught my eye and gave me reason to want to look at the original,″ Barnett said.

The missing page worried lawyers that other evidence could disappear.

Lost business and property damage from the crash could total well over $500 million, said Daniel Becnel, an attorney who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of mall business owners.

The ship’s owners, COSCO Shipping Co., have filed suit under a federal maritime statute to limit their liability to the value of the ship and its cargo, about $16 million.

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