By Paul Murphy
The marine freighter Bright Field slammed into a packed Riverwalk shopping mall in New Orleans 20 years ago Wednesday.
Veteran river pilot Capt. Ted Davisson was at the controls when the 730-foot Chinese ship, filled with grain, suddenly lost power as he approached the Crescent City Connection bridge.
Without any notice, the bridge of the ship went quiet.
“That was a sure fire indication to me that there was an engine issue,” Davisson said. “I asked the captain if there was a problem and I got no response.”
Davisson remembers praying to God that they wouldn’t hit the dock.
Miraculously, he was able to avoid a cruise ship along the wharf with hundreds of passengers on board.
The Bright Field then ran aground just 70 feet short of a floating casino packed with weekend gamblers.
“As luck would have it, or the hand of God stepped in and defied all laws of physics and the ship, instead of continuing to turn to the left, toward the cruise ship, we turned to the right where there was open dock space,” Davisson said.
Harbor Police Chief Robert Hecker arrived at the scene, shortly after the Bright Field struck the dock.
“When you looked at that area from the river, which you would have to do by boat, and you saw how that 1 River Place parking garage was just pancaked with those vehicles smashed on top of each other, it was very similar to the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing,” Hecker said.
Chief Hecker says there was a large number of officers working paid details at the mall at the time of the accident.
Those officers heard the ship in distress and immediately started getting shoppers away from the impact area.
“No missing individuals. The bodies that were reported to be in the river turned out to be mannequins from one of the department stores in the Riverwalk,” Hecker said. “What could have been what I consider one of the worst tragedies in the city’s history turned out to be one of the greatest miracles in the city’s history.”
Capt. Davisson says since the accident, the Coast Guard instituted a new early warning system on the lower Mississippi River.
River pilots now have special training every year on lessons learned from Bright Field experience.
Despite saving hundreds of lives, Davisson does not consider himself a hero.
“No, not at all. I was just doing my job,” Davisson said. “Like I said, the hand of God stepped in and avoided a terrible situation.”
The accident caused about $15 million worth of damage to the pier, Riverwalk shops, condos and Hilton Hotel and 66 people were injured.
Investigators said the cause of the Bright Field’s engine failure was a poorly-maintained oil filtration system.
The ship’s alarm system was also turned off by the Chinese crew.
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