Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Runaway Cruise Ship

The Carnival ship Ecstasy — home for more than 1,000 New Orleans police officers, their families, and other city workers, was safely back at its moorings this morning after a harrowing trip down the Mississippi River. The 855-foot cruise ship on Saturday broke loose from the dock, spun out into the river, narrowly avoided hitting a pair of Military Sea Lift Command ships moored near the Ecstasy and, with quick help from a river pilot and three tugs, came to rest about 300 feet from the riverbank, authorities said. Pressure on tie-down lines because of brisk winds, and an old dock may have caused the incident, Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Emily Tharp said. No injuries were reported, but Ecstasy passengers described a frantic scene.
"Thank God there was no river traffic at that particular time because it could have been really bad," said Michael Williams, 43, an environmental specialist with the New Orleans Health Department aboard the ship. "Everybody was just in amazement that something like this could happen." A New Orleans police officer said he was jarred from sleep by a loud boom. "The boat shook and I sat up and said, 'What is that?' Then I heard another loud boom and it shook again," the officer said, adding that he heard another boom as he hurriedly dressed. The officer asked to remain anonymous because Police Department officials forbid affected officers to speak to reporters on the record. Passengers piled out of their rooms as a voice on the public address system told them they faced an emergency. The announcement told them to grab life vests and head to the deck. There, people gathered around lifeboats as the ship drifted out into the river current, with the boat's stern, or rear, pulling away from the wharf first, the officer said. "I could not only feel the current taking us, almost like spinning, but I could see it," the officer said. The Coast Guard said 1,100 people, mostly law enforcement officials, were aboard the Ecstasy during the incident. The ship has been commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide housing for more than 1,600 people, mainly New Orleans police, fire and other emergency-response workers and their families, FEMA spokesman Jack Brandais said. The ship was out of control for only minutes, Tharp said. Cruise ship personnel were able to start a bow thruster within two minutes of learning that lines were snapping, and they got one of the main stern propellers running minutes later, she said. The bow thruster was critical to missing the military ships, and "once they had that bow thruster on line, they had some semblance of control," Tharp said. Notified by the Ecstasy, the Coast Guard used mariner broadcasts to keep other ships out of the area. The Ecstasy was returned to the Poland Avenue Wharf and was moved again to the Julia Street Wharf later in the day. Its use for emergency housing continues: Saturday's incident didn't cause FEMA to question using cruise ships as giant dormitories, Brandais said.

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