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Barge hits Riverwalk mall in New Orleans, six dead, scores injured

December 14, 1996

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A Liberian freighter lost power and smashed into the packed Riverwalk shopping mall on the Mississippi River on Saturday, as some panicked shoppers leapt into the water and others were trampled in the rush to escape.

The Coast Guard said six people were killed and four were missing. City officials at the scene said as many as 100 were injured.

The impact demolished parts of the multi-tiered wharf, including sections of the adjoining Hilton Hotel, which fell onto the ship. Gamblers in the Flamingo Casino watched in horror as the freighter approached.

``It just kept coming,″ said mall worker Chris Storey. ``It started to shake and we looked out the store window _ glass and water and the ceiling just starting falling in. People started running out in panic and it just went black inside.″

Another worker, Frances Williams, said the ship’s captain sounded its horn about three minutes before impact, and police were able to evacuate some shoppers.

Rescue workers searched the rubble with heat-sensing equipment. ``They’re trying to find some people that are possibly trapped in the debris,″ Coast Guard Petty Officer Tyler Johnson told CNN.

The Liberian-registered Bright Field struck the Riverwalk, a strip of upscale stores and condos overlooking the river, at 2 p.m. The impact sparked a fire as shoppers reported smelling gas.

``The ground started shaking like an earthquake and everyone started running out,″ said Wood Thomas, who was standing in the mall.

``It was just panic,″ he said. ``People began jumping into the river.″

Nicole Trufant, who works at Foot Traffic, an apparel store, said she and other workers dashed out after her boss saw the 763-foot freighter coming towards the mall through the store window.

``Our store is in the water,″ Trufant said.

The mall was evacuated and river traffic halted after the accident.

City Councilman Oliver Thomas said the Riverwalk was devastated. ``It’s almost like a pancake, about a football field long,″ he said. ``Right where there was a wharf there is water now.″

Stores at the Riverwalk, packed with holiday shoppers Saturday, include Abercrombie & Fitch, The Sharper Image, and Eddie Bauer.

The grain freighter was tied up after the crash, and several tugs worked to hold it in place. It had a 15-foot hole in the bow.

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