People fled for their lives as the 38,000-ton ship drifted, out of control, toward a New Orleans riverfront shopping center and moored passenger vessels. An investigator concluded it was nothing but luck that it missed the parked ships and only injured 62 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board has completed its investigation of the Dec. 14, 1996, accident. It blamed the ship's owner, Clearsky Shipping Co. of Liberia, for the lack of maintenance that led to the crash.But a repeat could turn into a disaster claiming many lives, the board warned.
The 735-foot Bright Field drifted downstream on the Mississippi River after its engine cut off, striking the New Orleans wharf in a 1,000-foot gap between the cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam and the casino boat Queen of New Orleans, both crowded with people.
"It was not maneuvered into that position, it was just plain luck," board investigator Marjorie Murtagh reported.
The ship's engine cut power automatically when an oil pump failed, the board reported. That resulted in the loss of steering.
The ship had suffered a series of engine failures in the past, the board said, including a similar incident in the Panama Canal and another that left it adrift in the Indian Ocean for five days.
When the engine failure occurred near New Orleans, the pilot radioed a warning and began blowing the ship's whistle while the captain sought to get the engine re-started.