'I woke up every night fighting the river': Luling Ferry survivor tells his story

A survivor of the Luling Fery disaster recounts the tragedy.

LULING, La. -- In the 40 years since the deadliest ferry crash in American history, Charles Chatelain has never seen the video footage of reports covering that day.  

He is one of the lucky ones. Of the passengers on board, 78 died and only 17 survived. Chatelain sat in his truck, riding the ferry "George Prince" from Destrehan to Luling on the Westbank that October morning in 1976.

"Right after he took off, some guy ran by and said 'Man, that thing's going to hit us,'" he recalled. 

That thing was Norwegian tanker, the SS Frosta.

"And that ship, it looked like one shell square coming down on you," Chatelain said.
 
The impact threw Chatelain and his truck into the Mississippi River. He vividly remembers what happened next.

"I was sitting behind the wheel of my truck and I bounced off the door to the other door and came up over the steering wheel, and when I was up in the steering wheel, there was the ship coming straight for me," he said. "All that happened in a quick flash and by the time I reached for the door I was already in the water."
 
It took years for him to be able to speak about the crash, but as he watched footage from that day in 1976, he realized WWL-TV anchor Bill Elder was talking about him during his live coverage of the disaster.

On the tape, Elder can be heard saying; "One man, Mr. Chatelain, c-h-a-t-e-l-a-i-n, tells me he was sitting in his pickup truck." 

Elder found Chatelain in a Luling hospital after he was rescued. It's not a moment Chatelain remembers well.

"I don't know what I told him. I was delirious," Chatelain said.
 
He had swallowed diesel fuel and was badly banged up. The interview didn't last long. The Louisiana State Police came and asked Elder to leave, but Elder managed to get Chatelain's story, and it went around the world.

"People from England called my mom up and said we saw Charlie on tv," Chatelain said, smiling for the first time.

The Coast Guard told Chatelain he is the only person who went under, came back up and survived. He said other surviving passengers had seen the crash coming and had abandoned ship.

"I woke up every night fighting the river, you know, staying alive," he remembered.

The Luling ferry disaster changed his life, but in some ways, he said, it also taught him how to live.

"Up until then, I hadn't been through anything, you know?,” he said of his life working for Texaco and living in River Ridge. “When that happens and everybody dies and you live, you're just lucky. It wasn't your time."

Chatelain has had several back and other surgeries because of injuries he got during the crash. An autopsy on the ferry captain showed that he had been drinking.  A Coast Guard investigation ruled that he was at fault for the crash.

 

(© 2016 WWL)


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