Day of disasters

The first two October 20ths of my life were very tragic.

The first, exactly one week after I was born, came on the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, about 25 miles west of downtown New Orleans.

A passenger ferry, the MV George Prince, was carrying 95 passengers, most of them in automobiles, from Destrehan on the east bank (actually north) of the river to Luling on the west bank (south). At the time, there was no bridge over the Mississippi between the Huey P. Long between Harahan and Westwego, and the Sunshine between Convent and Donaldsonville, so the only way across the river in St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes was via ferry.

There is also a ferry running between Chalmette and the Algiers section of New Orleans. I absolutely HATED the ferry. I was scared to death every time, because I feared the boat would capsize and everyone would drown. My parents often took the ferry to avoid traffic on the Greater New Orleans Bridge, which at the time had only two lanes of traffic in each direction. They stopped using the ferry in October 1988 when the second span of the GNO Bridge, now the Crescent City Connection, opened, allowing for four lanes to flow in each direction.

Fortunately, the nightmare I feared never happened on one of the ferries I was forced to ride on by my parents, but on October 20, 1976, it happened to the poor people on the MV George Prince.

It was all the fault of an intoxicated captain, Edigio “Gene” Auletta. Auletta and his crew passed around a pint of Seagram’s whiskey throughout their shift, which began late the previous evening and ran into the morning of the disaster.

If Auletta were sober, he would have easily been able to steer clear of the Frosta, a huge Norwegian tanker which was making its way up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The captain of the Frosta tried time and time again to warn the ferry to yield the right of way, but Auletta was too drunk to hear the warning horn.

What happened next was straight out of a disaster movie: a collision overturned the ferry and sent cars and people tumbling into the Mississippi. A total of 78 people died. How the other 17 survived is a miracle.

New Orleans coroner Dr. Frank Minyard determined Auletta had a .09 blood alcohol content. He was not legally drunk under the laws in effect at the time–.10 was the legal limit–but under today’s law, he would have been considered drunk, since the threshold has been lowered to .08, and even lower for ship captains.

I realize the Coast Guard found the captain of the Frosta negligent, but I put all of the blame on Auletta. I hope his family has been ostracized and is living with the shame of knowing he and his crew caused the deaths of 72 innocent people, people who did not deserve to die because of their total stupidity.

A memorial to the victims of the disaster now stands in Destrehan near the former ferry landing. The names of the crew are inscribed on the memorial, and that fact seriously pisses me off. The crew was fully responsible and they should be not be there, like the hijackers of the planes which caused the death and devastation on September 11, 2001.

One year later, October 20, 1977, the music world was shaken by yet another untimely death of one of its brightest lights.

A small airplane carrying the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd ran out of fuel and crashed into a heavily wooded area of Amite County, Mississippi, only a few miles north of the Louisiana state line. The band was flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, where they were scheduled to perform the next night at the LSU Assembly Center (now the Pete Maravich Assembly Center). Eight people perished in the crash, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guiatrist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

The band probably should not have used the plane in the first place. It was reported earlier in 1977 Aerosmith considered leasing the plane for its travel, but the band’s road manager rejected the idea when he inspected the plane and found major mechanical flaws, as well as the crew passing a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth before a flight. The two big names of Aerosmith, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, were begging to lease the plane, but everyone else in the traveling party thought it a bad idea.

Sadly, the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash was the latest in a long line of air tragedies in the music industry. The most famous, of course, was the 1959 Iowa plane crash which claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, aka The Day the Music Died. Pasty Cline died in a 1963 crash, and in 1973, Jim Croce was killed when the plane he was riding in crashed just after takeoff from the airport in Natchitoches, La.

Small plane crashes also took the lives of LSU football coach Bo Rein in 1980 before he ever coached a game for the Bayou Bengals, and golfer Payne Stewart in 1999.

Small planes are not safe. You couldn’t get me to fly on one.

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on October 20, 2014, in History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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