365 NOLA Adventures

Adventure #12: The Bright Field Incident (a.k.a. A Ship Slams Into The Riverwalk)

Bodies lay injured or unconscious on the floor of the devastated mall. More bodies were reported to be floating, lifeless, down the Mississippi River. Cadaver dogs searched the rubble for those missing or dead. Emergency responders erected a temporary morgue. Family members of the missing, and countless onlookers, set up a vigil just beyond the disaster scene.

This is bad,” New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial announced the obvious. “This is really bad.”
Less than an hour earlier, the scene on the 69,000-ton, 735-foot MV Bright Field was chaotic. The cargo vessel, carrying 128 million pounds of corn from upriver in Reserve, Louisiana, was registered in Monrovia, Liberia, but manned entirely by a Chinese crew. Ted Davisson, a local river pilot, had just come aboard to take control and navigate the ship down the river’s remaining, challenging stretch to its outlet into the Gulf of Mexico.
It was early afternoon on December 14, 1996. As he guided the ship under the twin spans of the Crescent City Connection, rapidly approaching New Orleans’ heavily populated downtown riverfront, Davisson looked down at his instrument panel and was horrified to see the ship had lost power.

The emergency sirens on the ship were sounded. Davisson tried to give instructions to the Chinese crew, but panic, the blaring horns, and a language barrier made it nearly impossible. The ship was careening directly toward two docked cruise ships holding a combined 1,700 passengers, as well as a riverboat casino with 800 gamblers on board. Between the cruise ships and the casino were thousands of Christmas shoppers and employees in the Riverwalk Mall, oblivious to the runaway ship headed toward them.
Davisson and the crew were able to get a pair of anchors dropped and — in combination with another maneuver that sounds impressive but that I don’t understand — he got the ship down to about 16 mph. He was able to get around the cruise ships, but not the mall. A Times-Picayune accounting of the wreck reads that, three minutes after the alarms were sounded on the ship, the vessel “slammed into the Riverwalk near its western end, shearing off boutiques, shops and restaurants like an icebreaker.”
Witnesses described a “terrifying” sound of grating concrete and shrieking metal as the Bright Field made contact. Fifteen shops and restaurants were all but eliminated as were portions of an adjacent garage and the waterfront rooms of the Riverside Wing of the Hilton Hotel, which towers over the Riverwalk.
An article from last year, with the questionable title, “When the Riverwalk got rammed,” goes on to describe a scene of light fixtures crashing to the ground, floors crumbling and collapsing on one another, dust and smoke enveloping the mall, emergency sprinklers activating, while passengers on the riverboat casino hurled themselves from the upper levels of the ship down to the concrete of the Spanish Plaza, below, as shoppers inside the mall ran for their lives.

One woman, shopping with her child, described seeing the ship outside the mall’s floor-to-ceiling windows. She said the scene was complete panic: people were running without even knowing what they were running from. Another woman, from Breaux Bridge, said she tried to outrun the vessel, but it kept pace with her until “it just plowed through Cafe du Monde like there wasn’t even a restaurant there.”

Guys — the parking lot collapsed. Cars fell onto each other and into the river. Right next to those bodies. It would have been worse if Bright Field had hit once of those cruise ships, but this was awful.
Yet, somehow, nobody died! Not a single person. Those “bodies” floating down the Mississippi River were actually mannequins that fell from stores slashed open by the ship! (This is one of my favorite details from the event!)
The number of injuries listed vary, but none exceed one hundred. The mayor and the ship’s temporary captain called it “a miracle.”
The determined cause was a poorly-maintained oil filtration system that clogged. There were several issues with the engine on the ship’s journey from Indonesia to Reserve that went unreported, and the crew disarmed the ship’s alarm system. (Smooth moves, everyone.)
The damage cost between $12 million to $15 million in property damage. The Riverwalk mall was only shutdown for six weeks, before it was “hastily repatched” for the Super Bowl we were hosting in January. By early 1998, the mall and the Hilton were back up and running, with no evidence a massive ship had barreled into it other than a small placard and the installation of an improved early-warning system.
When I called my buddy, Aaron, yesterday morning to see if he wanted to go on an adventure, the goal was to find that placard.
“Our adventure is to go to the mall? he sounded disappointed.
“Basically, yes,” and then I did my best to explain what now has the bad ass name, The Bright Field Incident.
“Whatever, sure, I’ll be there,” he sighed.
Armed only with this excitement, we went to the mall! Officially called, “The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk,” the shopping center got its start because, by the beginning of the 1980s, increased use of containers in shipping made many of the older riverfront wharves less useful. The Poydras Street Wharf and the Julia Street Wharf were demolished and that land was used as part of the 1984 World’s Fair! After the fair this section was redeveloped into the “Riverwalk,” an upscale mall intended to attract both tourists and locals.

“Okay, let’s knock out this plaque first,” I told my red-bearded friend. “This should be pretty easy.” We had about two hours before we had to be at the Smoothie King Center for a Pelicans game.
“Cool,” he agreed.
We walked along the outside of the mall, near the river, which is where I figured the plaque would be. No luck.
“Want to grab a drink, and we can maybe ask someone if they know where it is?” I suggested.
“Sure,” Aaron said, scrolling on his phone. “Yeah, this article says there’s a ‘non-descript plaque.’ Maybe it’s on a mall map or something?”

After imagining the gruesome scene of a 69,000-ton cargo ship ripping through the line of tourists waiting for beignets, Aaron and I walked up to the Riverbar — a sports bar in the middle of a mall, because visitors need to understand that, in New Orleans, you can put a bar anywhere.
The Riverbar had the domestic beers at craft beer prices, which is probably what you’d expect from a mall. They also had a section for drinks you’re likely to find on, or around, Bourbon Street. “Do you want to go full tourist?” I asked Aaron, pointing at the “Cat-5 Hurricane.”
“Duh,” he nodded.
“Two Cat-5 Hurricanes!” I told the bartender, taking pictures of the menu, the bar, the other people at the bar, the stores in the mall, people walking by the stores in the mall, and anything else I could find. I could feel Aaron shaking his head.
“You sure can,” the woman hammed it up with a thick accent. “Where you boys from?”
“Oh, I live in the Bywater, and he lives in Mid-City,” I pointed at Aaron. This obviously confused her. “Do you mind taking a picture of us with our hurricanes?”

we confused her more.

“Hey,” I asked he bartender, whose name I learned was Brenda, “I’m not sure if this is common knowledge or not, but I guess, in the 1990s, a ship barreled into this place.” She nodded, knowingly. “Do you have any idea where the plaque is?”

https://youtu.be/GhIAEOJMaK8 Brenda had a lot of information, but unfortunately — like us — she didn’t know where the plaque was. We said our goodbyes, and as we walked away, drinking the insanely sweet drinks that were rotting the teeth out of our mouths while we spoke, I told Aaron her story was way different than what I had read. Aaron suggested we head upstairs and, when on the way we were accosted by a Chinese masseuse, we briefly entertained the idea of a couples massage. It is aligned with the adventure, I argued, as the ships crew was Chinese. Once upstairs I was reminded of one of my favorite things about malls. Food samples! A And food courts! And even a giant Pac-Man next to a Daiquiri shop! Come on! Why am I not hanging out in malls all the time? Malls are also extremely safe…except for when ships occasionally run into them. And, like that, we had wasted 30 minutes without getting any closer to finding the plaque. We took a walk along Riverwalk’s second-level balcony. There were tons of signs that looked like they could be our sign, but none of them were. They were all advertisements for the Riverwalk’s social media accounts. Still no sign of our sign, and the clock was ticking. Now, with only about an hour until tip-off, we worried we might not find it. We both got on our phones and Googled frantically. Nothing was coming up. Had anyone ever seen this plaque? We stood along the railing on the second-level, looking out at the river picking up speed as it curved under the Crescent City Connection. I turned to Aaron. “Dude, can you imagine being here for that?” “For what?” “The ship. Seeing a runaway cargo ship headed this way. Alarms blasting.” We shook our heads and walked back inside. And when we walked through the door, Aaron exclaimed, “Look at that!” I lifted my head in excitement! Did he find the plaque? He pointed at the Information Desk. “They might know where it is.” Not as good as the plaque itself, but maybe some progress. We waited in line as the two young ladies manning the desk answered the questions of customers in front of us. “How do we go on one of those alligator tours?” one couple asked. “What’s the best restaurant on Bourbon Street?” two bros wanted to know. “Where can we hear live music around here?” a woman with arms full of shopping bags wondered aloud. “Hello, a ship rampaged into that section of this mall. Do you know where the –” “When?!” the woman, startled, interrupted me. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was in 1996, I think. Do you know where the plaque commemorating that event is?” “Whew,” she sighed relief, “no, I don’t know where that is, I’m sorry. Maybe it’s on the mall map?” It wasn’t. We had already checked. Dejected, we walked back outside. I stopped at the kiosk outside the “Creole Queen” to ask if they knew anything about it. Again, no luck. “Man,” I said to Aaron, “this’ll be the first adventure I fail at.” “Ah, it doesn’t matter,” he said as we stopped at the railing. I was watching this interview with Greg Popovich from the San Antonio Spurs, recently, and he said, ‘It’s not supposed to be easy. This is supposed to be hard.’ We’re not trying to win an NBA Championship here, but I think it’s cool it doesn’t always work out every time.” That made sense to me. We still learned a lot about the event and did fun things in the site at which it happened. A plaque wouldn’t really change anything. More than anything, I’m just curious where it is. Like a scavenger hunt. We approached another plaque, which accounted a second maritime disaster I hadn’t heard of. On Easter in 1969, Captain Kenneth H. Scarbrough was captaining a freighter that was in a collision with several barges. His ship, the Union Faith, caught fire. Rather than abandoning ship, Scarbrough remained aboard the burning vessel, managed to free her anchors, and stayed with her until it sank. If he would have saved his own life, the ship would have crashed into one of a number of downriver wharves, potentially setting the French Quarter ablaze. The ship, as well as its captain, rest at the bottom of the river, just off the edge of Canal Street. And this will have to be an adventure for another day. (I think Brenda, the bartender from earlier, may have combined elements of this story with the one we were pursuing today.) Aaron and I continued to walk along the river, past Spanish Plaza, which is currently under construction. “I wonder if the plaque is normally in there?” Giving up for the day, we decided to add one last bit to our adventure before the Pelicans game. Aaron had never had the chargrilled oysters at Drago’s. In my opinion (and in the opinion of many others) these are the best oysters in the city. What I didn’t know was how extraordinary the couple who founded the restaurant were/are. I don’t have the space to go into it in detail now, but both are from Croatia. They met here, went to Canada when their Visas expired and then eventually moved back to New Orleans. Their three restaurants employ more than 450 people, and — in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina — they gave approximately 80,000 free meals to victims of the storm. While we waited for our oysters, I remembered we were inside the Hilton Hotel, which received major damage in the incident. Maybe someone here knows something? I went up to the concierge, Connie, who wanted so badly to help me, but who — after five minutes of intense internet research — was only able to narrow it down to somewhere along the river side of the mall. Does anyone have any idea where this plaque is? If so, please let me know in the comments section. We gave it a great shot, and I got to hang out with my friend while learning something, goofing around in the Mall, and eating the best oysters in the city. Hardly a failure! In the wake (ha!) of the Bright Field Incident, there was some debate about whether New Orleans should continue to build like this along such a busy section of river. The “againsts” didn’t get very far as the city and the river have been inseparable since its founding. The river is the very reason we’re here. I think Joe Clayton, a ship captain and president of the New Orleans Steamship and Riverboat Association at the time of the incident, best answered that concern in an interview with The New York Times. “Taking all the barges and ships off the river would make it perfectly safe,” he said. “But then there would be no New Orleans.” I really want to end this post there, but I had to come back and include another response he gave in that same interview, because you can’t give this kind of reply now. “The river is like a beautiful woman,” he said. “It can be dangerous.” Until tomorrow then, watch out for those beautiful women.

3 thoughts on “Adventure #12: The Bright Field Incident (a.k.a. A Ship Slams Into The Riverwalk)”

  1. Hey Matt! Good read and very intriguing! I can’t help but be drawn in by an unfindable plaque so I took a Googlemaps walk down the riverfront side of the mall. I wanted to ask you if you had checked out the small silver plaque looking item above the GAP sign (this comment field won’t let me post a screenshot, boo). Take a look on Google street view and see if it looks like something you saw while searching. Based on pictures from news reports at the time, it’s plausibly near the impact area and as I mentioned, suspiciously plaque-like. It’s also not really at eye level either, more like barge prow impact level really. Can’t make out what’s written on it though, could just be sprinkler system maintenance instructions or something.

    Liked by 1 person

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