On Oct. 20, 1976, the Destrehan-Luling Ferry sank after colliding with another ship in the Mississippi River, killing 77 crew members and passengers.
It was right before dawn when 95 people, many of whom were workers at area chemical plants, boarded the George Prince Ferry in Destrehan for the trip across the river to Luling. Minutes into the journey to the West Bank, the ferry crashed into the 22,000-ton Norwegian tanker, the Frosta, causing the George Prince to capsize.
People who saw the accident from other boats noticed that the ferry was behaving strangely, continuing to plow across the river even as it came dangerously close to the Frosta.
“We saw the ship moving up the river, and the ship blowed (its whistle) for the ferry four or five times, but the ferry just kept going,” a witness told a reporter from the State Times Advocate.
Some passengers and vehicles went overboard and some passengers were trapped in the ferry’s cabin.
Media reports from the time described passengers being trapped inside their cars on the George Prince, screaming for help as the ferry sank.
Rescue teams searched for survivors by helicopter and boat, while families and friends of the victims lined the levees to hear news about their loved ones.
Only 18 people who boarded the ferry that morning survived. Seventy-two passengers and all five crew members died. (The Frosta reported no deaths or injuries among its crew.)
A coroner’s report released seven days after the crash found that the pilot, Eugene Auletta, and four crewmen were intoxicated at the time of the tragic collision. Later, an investigation by the Coast Guard found that the ferry violated several operational rules.
As a result of the investigation, several policy changes were recommended to prevent future collisions. These changes included a requirement that traffic crossing the river should yield to upstream and downstream traffic, like the Frosta tanker; a requirement that all passenger-carrying vehicles signal; random drug and alcohol tests to ship employees, and fixed planned routes with advertised schedules.
The Destrehan-Luling ferry run ended in 1983 when the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge, which had been under construction at the time of the accident, opened to the public.
More than 30 years after the collision, in 2009, victims of the George Prince Ferry were honored with a memorial along the East Bank. The bell from the ferry is kept at the East Regional Library in Destrehan.
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