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40 years ago: Luling ferry disaster claimed 78 lives

Known as the Luling ferry disaster, the Mississippi River collision between the ferry George Prince and the Norwegian tanker S.S. Frosta remains the deadliest ferry disaster in American history.

LULING, La. -- It happened on a cool, crisp and dark October morning 40 years ago today. Known as the Luling ferry disaster, the Mississippi River collision between the ferry George Prince and the Norwegian tanker S.S. Frosta remains the deadliest ferry disaster in American history.

Many of the 78 victims were construction and plant workers who drove their cars onto the Luling-Destrehan ferry the morning of Oct. 20, 1976, headed to their shifts at the plants up and down the river.

Not long after the ferry began its trek from Destrehan toward Luling, it collided head on with the tanker, which was traveling upriver. The impact flipped the ferry over and dumped passengers and their automobiles into the river. Witnesses said the captain of the ship tried to warn the ferry to turn away, but to no avail.

WATCH Bill Elder's report on the day of the ferry disaster

“The pilot seemed oblivious to what was going on. The passengers were warning him as well, honking their horns and flashing their headlights, but he seemed to not know what was there and a major collision ensued and 77 people lost their lives,” said filmmaker Royd Anderson in an interview with Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Anderson produced a documentary about the disaster which will be screened Thursday night in Destrehan.

“He just kept going straight and the pilot of the ship did give signals and a warning blast. A lot of survivors testified to that, people who were on the banks witnessed it, heard the whistle blasts and it just seems that he did not see it or did not hear it. We don’t know.”

Accounts from the 16 people who survived the disaster, along with the testimony of eyewitnesses, led federal investigators to conclude that the pilot of the ferry, Egidio Auletta, was to blame for the incident. An autopsy on Auletta found that he had been drinking on the job and was intoxicated at the time of the crash.

On Thursday, filmmaker Royd Anderson will present an updated version of his 2006 film chronicling “The Luling Ferry Disaster.” Anderson has added additional footage to the film, including an extended interview with the late Archbishop Philip Hannan, who was in the area when the crash occurred, assisting with the grieving and recovery process.

St. Charles Parish President Larry Cochran will also speak at the screening. Anderson calls him a driving force in getting the George Prince ferry bell displayed at the East Regional Library in Destrehan, as well as locating a ferry monument at the East Bank Bridge Park.

The screening will be held Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at East Regional Library, 160 W. Campus Drive in Destrehan.