Holding on and letting go

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 23, 2009

By David Vitrano


DESTREHAN – Even the hulking mass of the Hale Boggs Bridge couldn’t dwarf the emotion present on this particularly clear Saturday.

Throngs of people — so many, in fact, shuttles had to run between St. Charles Borromeo and East Bank Bridge Park — gathered near the site of the old ferry landing for the dedication of a memorial commemorating the George Prince Ferry disaster of 1976.

The shining black slab is emblazoned with the names of the 77 who perished in as well as the 19 who survived that harrowing morning that remains to this day the worst ferry disaster in American history. Surrounding the monolith are a series of plaques describing the events of Oct. 20, 1976.

After St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr., members of the St. Charles Parish Council and other prominent members of the community took their places, the ceremony began with the presentation of colors by the Destrehan High School ROTC. What followed was an emotionally wrought and touching tribute to the survival of a community.

The bulk of the dedication consisted of the recitation of the names of each person who lost their life in the disaster. As each name was read, a bell tolled and a member of their family — many of whom had tears flowing down their cheeks — released a balloon.

Tears seemed the norm for that otherwise beautiful morning.

St. Pierre also choked back tears as he spoke of the dedication of the community in making the vision of a memorial a reality.

“I’m proud that we’re now educating our young generation about what happened here,” he said.

Far from a mere educational tool, however, St. Pierre recognized the very real significance the monument has for many who lost a loved one in the disaster.

“To those of you who haven’t found closure, I hope that this monument helps you advance this process,” said St. Pierre.

Tears were also shed by David Broussard, who along with his cousin Brian was one of the lucky few who walked away from the George Prince Ferry.

“As time goes by you forget,” he said, his voice cracking slightly though his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. “But some things you shouldn’t forget.”

His cousin, coming to his side, attested to the debt he owes David. “He saved my life,” he said. It is obviously an ordeal neither of them will forget.

Unfortunately, most were not as lucky as David and Brian.

Local residents George Herbold and Kenny Campo came out to pay homage to Kevin Pritchett, a friend who perished in the waters of the Mississippi.

For the two, who were teenagers in 1976, the memories of that morning are as clear as if the disaster happened last week.

They remembered the fog and walking up to the top of the levee to see the upside down, broken hull of the ferry. They also remember seeing cars with people inside floating down the river.

“I was sick to my stomach. My mom came and picked me up,” said Campo.

For Herbold, the disaster hit especially close to home. “My father would have been the next one in line to get on the ferry.”

Many children did lose their fathers that day as the ferry was crowded with blue collar workers who labored in the plants that line the banks of the river.

Whether the loss on that day was direct or indirect, it seems few in the community were untouched by the disaster.

The monument itself means different things to different members of the community, but whether for healing, education or remembrance, its presence, at least on that day, seemed to fill a void in the community that was opened 33 years ago.