Tippling Wheelman Blamed For George Prince Disaster
By James Donahue
Seventy-eight construction and chemical plant
workers perished on Oct. 20, 1976, when the car ferry George Prince pulled away from a dock at Destrehan, Louisiana and blundered
into the path of the Norwegian tanker Frosta.
The wreck is still considered among the worst
disasters involving a ferry in the history of the United States.
It happened just after 6 a.m. as the five-member
crew of the 120-foot ferry was making a last river crossing before there was a change of shift at 7 a.m. The vessel was packed
with cars, trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians, many of them heading for their jobs at a Texaco refinery on the construction
of a new bridge that would replace the ferry service seven years later.
It was estimated that about 95 people were
on the George Prince that morning when ferry pilot Egidio “Gene” Auletta powered the 670 horsepower diesel engine
and turned the ferry out into the river on its way to Luling.
Survivors said they saw the 664-foot tanker
coming up-stream on what appeared to be a collision course, but they expected the pilot of the ferry to take some kind of
evasive action. He didn’t. Auletta seemed oblivious to the frantic horn blasts and radio calls from the tanker that
now was towering over the ferry’s side.
When they hit, they said the Frosta ran over
the tiny George Prince like it was a bathtub toy. As the vessel rolled, it spilled cars and people into the river. The 78
that died included Aletta and the four members of his crew.
When the wreck was raised, a half-empty bottle
of whisky was found in the pilot house. The theory was that Aletta was suffering from fatigue and intoxication and thus took
the blame for the disaster.
The ferry, built in 1937, was equipped with
two radar units, although only one was turned on at the time of the wreck. Aletta was the only one in the pilot house and
the only one supposedly on watch. The other crew members were the engineer and three deck hands. None was assigned a duty
Survivor Charles Chatelain, who was on his
way to work at the refinery, was seated in his 1975 Ford pickup parked forward of the pilot house on the ferry’s starboard
side when the collision occurred. He said he saw there was going to be a collision and jumped into the truck, hoping it would
give him some protection. The vehicle was among the first to plunge into the water when the ferry rolled.
Chatelain said the collision was so violent
it shoved him out of his seat and into the truck’s dashboard. Then as the vehicle sank, he found himself trapped in
the cab. But as the truck dropped deeper the water pressure popped the windshield and the air still trapped in the cap propelled
him into the water.
He said cars and trucks were falling all
around him as he struggled to swim to the surface. Chatelain said he had to hold his breath so long he began taking in water
that was greasy with fuel before he finally popped to the surface. His throat was burning from the diesel fuel and he had
swallowed some water, but he miraculously avoided getting it in his lungs.
He said his next worry was that he came up
close to the stern of the tanker and he feared getting sucked into its propeller. What Chatelain did not know was that the
crew of the Frosta had ordered “stop engines” the moment they knew they could not avoid the crash so survivors
in the water would not be harmed. The Frosta also dropped anchor, notified the Coast Guard and dispatched life boats in an
attempt to help.
Chatelain said he swam to what he thought
was a barge in the river, but it turned out to be the overturned hull of the ferry. He was still there when he was rescued
and taken to a local hospital.