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George Prince Ferry Disaster

The 1976 George Prince ferry disaster between Destrehan and Luling was the deadliest ferry disaster in US history and a touchstone for a new set of safety protocols for ferry travel.

George Prince Ferry Disaster

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The George Prince ferry sometime between 1950 and its sinking.

On October 20, 1976, the George Prince ferry finished loading passengers and vehicles at Destrehan, Louisiana, and was ready to head across the Mississippi River as it usually did on the stretch between Destrehan and Luling. Many of the ferry’s passengers huddled inside to escape the 40°F chill, and the windows of the ferry were closed to keep out the brisk but surprisingly clear air, a rarity due to nearby grain elevator operations that usually produced a dust cloud. The ferry sounded no warnings as it began its half-mile trek, nor did it pay attention to an oncoming vessel, the SS Frosta, a Norwegian tankship headed upriver towards Baton Rouge. Within minutes the Frosta collided with the George Prince on the latter’s portside, causing the ferry to capsize and throw passengers and vehicles into the water as it sunk. Seventy-six passengers perished and eighteen survived in what would become known as the deadliest ferry disaster and the deadliest peacetime nautical disaster in US history. The ensuing investigation resulted in several recommendations for policy changes to prevent similar nautical disasters.

Ferries of Louisiana

Due to the state’s many waterways Louisianans have relied on ferries to help them traverse sections of the state since the establishment of the first state ferry service between New Orleans’s Canal Street and Algiers in 1827. While in 2020 only five ferries in the state service the Mississippi River (the Belle Chasse–Scarsdale, East Pointe–West Pointe à la Hache, Canal Street–Algiers, Lower Algiers–Chalmette, and Plaquemine–Sunshine), at one point in time there were many others, including the Luling–Destrehan ferry. As was the case with the Luling–Destrehan ferry, many of the state’s ferries were replaced by bridges during the latter half of the twentieth century as automobile ownership increased. The Luling–Destrehan Bridge (now the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge), for example, was under construction at the time of the ferry disaster, just three-fourths of a mile from the disaster site. Its completion seven years following the incident would end the ferry’s route across the river.

While there have been many disasters on the Mississippi River related to passenger-carrying vessels, some infamous like the Princess or Sultana, the Luling–Destrehan incident remains unique due to its circumstances. Unlike earlier disasters on the Mississippi River, the George Prince incident occurred after the federal regulation of river traffic, stricter safety regulations, and modern technological communication devices. For example, the last major incident on a peacetime nautical vessel in US waters had occurred in 1947 when the SS Grandcamp, carrying ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, exploded in Texas City, Texas, and killed 581 people. Incidents did occur on boats like ferries but extreme loss of life was rare. Even the George Prince had had its fair share of close calls before that fateful morning in late October 1976. Two years prior the George Prince collided with a smaller boat in a similar set of circumstances, but it suffered no catastrophic injuries as a result. In 1976, however, the results were devastating.

The Disaster

Built in 1937 in Slidell, Louisiana, the George Prince often shared its crew with other ferries in the area, like the foot ferry between Taft and Norco and the vehicle ferry between Edgard and Reserve. On this occasion the crew had been on shift for hours before the ferry incident. With its windows closed because of cold weather and with no lookout, the George Prince headed unwaveringly across river, placing it ominously in the path of the Frosta, which signaled in panic.

From the moment the Frosta impacted the George Prince at milepost 120.8 above Head of Passes, it was clear that its impact was destructive. The Frosta penetrated the port hull of the George Prince, exposing it to the river. The ship’s crew watched in horror as the George Prince was pushed upriver before capsizing to the starboard and throwing its full load of vehicles and passengers into the water. Rolling under the Frosta’s hull, the George Prince capsized. Eighteen passengers and crew of the George Prince were trapped inside while an unknown number of passengers sunk to the river’s bottom with their vehicles. Those on the deck of the George Prince rushed unsuccessfully to the life-jacket locker or sheltered inside their cars. Of the survivors, fourteen were thrown from the George Prince during the impact while four found themselves drawn under the vessel as it capsized. Only two managed to retrieve life jackets before entering the water.

The Frosta’s crew immediately began radioing for emergency assistance from the Coast Guard while attempting to slow its momentum and steer out of the way of those thrown overboard from the George Prince. The Frosta’s crew then launched lifeboats to search for survivors. Two neighboring ferries, the Ollie K. Wilds (which shared the George Prince’s route) and the Polyviking, also attempted to rescue any survivors. The Ollie Wilds used two long benches from its waiting room to serve as a makeshift plank for sixteen survivors stranded on the overturned George Prince. The Coast Guard deployed helicopters to begin an air search for survivors and sent diving teams to assist with those trapped underwater. Shortly thereafter divers reported no signs of life, having pulled those that perished from the hull and pilothouse. Fifty-eight of the George Prince’s remaining passengers washed up alongside neighboring banks or were retrieved from the water.

Investigation

The George Prince incident shocked the nation with its severity. With seventy-six passengers dead in a tragically avoidable manner, calls for an investigation began immediately. Seven days after the crash the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office released the blood-alcohol and toxicology examinations performed on the George Prince’s pilot Eugene Auletta, revealing that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.09 when he perished. (Current Louisiana law defines someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent as legally drunk.) A further investigation of the crew of the George Prince revealed similar results in four crewmen.

Meanwhile, an investigation by the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation revealed that a multitude of errors had occurred on the George Prince’s part, ranging from failure to adhere to rules regarding nautical travel to various operational violations. In all, the investigation faulted the George Prince in the events on that fateful morning in October 1976.

Aftermath

The US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report, filed April 18, 1978, made several recommendations for policy changes to prevent situations like the George Prince disaster from occurring again. Among them was an amendment to the Rules of the Road for Western Rivers to give right of way to stream traffic over crossing traffic (which would have mandated the George Prince give right of way to the Frosta). The report also recommended amending the Bridge to Bridge Radiotelephone Act to require all passenger-carrying vehicles to signal (likely tipping off the George Prince’s position and decision to proceed). Finally, the report recommended that ferries participate in planned routes with fixed, advertised schedules (preventing the irregular ferry times practiced by the George Prince). These changes have largely prevented incidents of the magnitude of the George Prince, leaving it as an important note in history books. Despite this event’s significance in US and Louisiana history, the disaster has received little historical attention until recently, when a documentary film produced by Royd Anderson on the ferry disaster sparked new interest. As a result, a monument to the deadliest ferry disaster in US history was erected in 2009 along the East Bank in Destrehan, and the bell from the ferry, raised during salvage, was put on display at the Destrehan East Regional Library.