- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A shipwreck in the Mississippi River’s main channel to the Gulf of Mexico continued to block scores of freighters and cruise ships yesterday, leaving thousands of passengers either stuck here for today’s Mardi Gras or scrambling for alternative transportation.

Gary LaGrange, executive director of the Port of New Orleans, said reopening the channel probably will take until tomorrow, and getting operations back to normal will require several more days.

“Our experts tell us that every day the river is closed, it will take two to three days to catch up,” Mr. LaGrange said.

Divers were sent yesterday into the partially submerged hull of the 178-foot Lee III, which collided with a larger vessel in a fog Saturday, to search for five missing sailors and prepare the ship for removal. The Lee III, used to deliver people and supplies to offshore oil rigs, is obstructing the Southwest Pass, the only channel deep enough for large oceangoing ships.

Salvage specialists planned to pump air into the vessel, put a giant strap under its stern and either pull the ship out of the way or lift it onto a barge.

More than 40 cargo ships were waiting to sail downriver into the Gulf, and about the same number were lined up waiting to enter the river.

Two Carnival Cruise Lines ships that had been headed for weekend moorings at New Orleans after Caribbean cruises were diverted to other Gulf ports. Thousands of passengers then were put onto buses to New Orleans, and travelers who had been waiting to board the ships in New Orleans had to be taken by bus to the other ports.

“We’re utilizing as many motor coaches as we can get our hands on,” said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.

Carnival’s 3,600-passenger Conquest was supposed to leave New Orleans on Sunday night, but because it was diverted to Gulfport, Miss., its departure had to be delayed until last night, cutting into its Caribbean cruise.

“I can’t believe it,” said New Orleans resident Dawn Allen. She said it was the second time a trip on the Conquest had been delayed, and she will not be sailing on that ship again: “Two strikes and you’re out, I guess.”

Carnival offered the passengers partial refunds.

Carnival’s Holiday moored in Mobile, Ala., carrying 1,500 passengers who had to be sent to New Orleans by bus, a ride of a little more than two hours. Nevertheless, the Holiday’s Monday night sailing time was unaffected.

Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas and its 2,600 passengers were stranded in New Orleans, unable to leave the city and its noisy Mardi Gras celebrations for a cruise to the Caribbean islands.

Officials at Royal Caribbean’s corporate offices in Miami did not immediately return calls.

The Lee III sank after colliding with a 534-foot container ship. The larger vessel reported damage but no injuries.

The cause of the accident was under investigation.

Coast Guard investigators interviewed the container ship’s captain and crew, who also were to be tested for alcohol and drugs.

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