A grain freighter lost power and smashed into the Riverwalk shopping mall on Saturday as panicked holiday shoppers leapt into the Mississippi River and trampled each other in the rush to escape.
The Coast Guard initially reported that six people were killed. Hours later, the Coast Guard and Mayor Marc Morial said no deaths had been confirmed.
As many as 140 people sought treatment at five area hospitals, hospital officials said, with the majority being treated for injuries suffered trying to get out of the mall and released. A city councilwoman at the scene said four mentally retarded children were missing.
The impact demolished parts of the three-tiered wharf that has 200 shops and eateries, as well sections of the adjoining Hilton Hotel. What remained standing looked unstable and ready to collapse, apparently held up only by the vessel lodged underneath.
Chunks of stores, restaurants, bars, as well as a parking garage and exercise room from a condominium littered the river.
“It’s almost like a pancake, about a football field long,” City Councilman Oliver Thomas said of the devastation. “Right where there was a wharf there is water now.”
Ron Brinson, executive director of port of New Orleans, said rescue workers using heat-sensors and dogs searched overnight for possible survivors trapped in the rubble and for victims, but added “we are very, very hopeful that when this is over, there won’t be any victims.”
One mall worker said the captain sounded the horn about three minutes before the freighter, carrying 70 tons of grain, sliced bow-first into a second-story section of the 180,000-square foot, metal-and-glass mall that extends over the river.
“All witnesses confirmed that they heard the warning,” Brinson said.
Those of the approximately 1,000 mall shoppers and 800 gamblers on the Flamingo Casino riverboat docked nearby who had window views watched in horror as the freighter cruised out of control, missing the riverboat and two other ships with 1,700 aboard before crashing into the mall.
“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.”
A group of Girl Scouts who initially had been reported missing were found safe, but four mentally retarded 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.
Brinson said the 763-foot cargo ship “ricocheted” off the mall, striking the strip of upscale stores and condos overlooking the river at about 2:30 p.m.
“The ground started shaking like an earthquake and everyone started running out,” said Wood Thomas, who was standing in the mall. “People began jumping into the river.”
The point of the accident is considered the most dangerous stretch of the Mississippi River, traveled by an average of 400 ships a day.
“We’re talking about a busier stretch of water than New York harbor,” said Doc Hawley, who has been a tour boat captain for 20 years. “It’s the only place on the river that actually has traffic lights to control the traffic.”
Hours after the crash, the Coast Guard backed off its initial reports that six people were killed.
“Those reports from people on scene - that was their account,” said Petty Officer Renee Gordon. “But that is not being reported by the Coast Guard.”
The Coast Guard said the Liberian-registered Bright Field, operated by COSCO Shipping Co. Ltd. of Hong Kong, the world’s No. 4 shipping company, was heading down river when it lost power.
Ken Parris, a senior investigating officer with the Coast Guard, said early signs pointed to mechanical failure.
Twenty rooms at the Hilton sustained major damage, said marketing director Mike Taylor. The hotel evacuated 180 of the 460 rooms, he said.
The Riverwalk opened in 1986 at a cost of $58 million. Stores include Abercrombie & Fitch, The Sharper Image, and Eddie Bauer.
Map of area.