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Twenty Hurt At Ship Launch Splash Tosses Gravel, Driftwood; Side-Launch Maneuver Not New

Launching a new, 420-foot Coast Guard ship - the service’s largest - into the Mississippi River on Saturday kicked up a wave of muddy water and debris that inundated a viewing stand and injured about 20 people.

A few suffered broken bones, but most of the injuries were minor cuts, bruises and scrapes, said Col. John Fortunato of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

After a christening ceremony, the icebreaker Healy was released into the river.

“When the ship went into the water it created a backsplash. It showered the spectators with water and debris from the river,” Fortunato said.

About 30 or 40 dignitaries were drenched by the splash, which tossed sand, gravel and driftwood at least 50 feet from the ship into seats standing up to 15 feet off the ground, said Ed Winter, spokesman for shipbuilder Avondale Industries.

The Healy is a $236 million ship designed for research, breaking ice, and resupplying polar bases. It will carry a 75-member crew of scientists, officers and enlisted men.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, whose wife, Catherine, christened the Healy, was among those in the stands. Stevens was unhurt.

About 15 people were treated on the scene, and a half-dozen or so taken to hospitals, Winter said.

“We’ve launched hundreds of ships in a similar manner - side launches - and that’s never happened before. It took all of us by surprise,” he said.

A side launch sends a ship sideways along skids 40 to 50 feet out into the river, parallel to the viewing stands. The ship hits the water another 10 to 20 feet out, and rocks back and forth - usually without incident.

“Side launches are always popular because they’re so dramatic and pretty,” Winter said.

Winter was with Catherine Stevens when she broke the champagne bottle on the bow.

“It looked good from the bow end, but from the stern end, evidently there was a splash. … The viewing stands were a reasonable distance away. It must have kicked up pretty good,” he said.

The icebreaker, the Coast Guard’s first in 20 years, is named after legendary 19th-century Coast Guard Capt. Michael A. Healy.

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