The Carnival Cruise Ship 'Conquest' was supposed to dock in New Orleans Sunday, but instead the luxury cruise liner has once again dropped anchor in Gulfport. The Conquest was diverted to Gulfport after Coast Guard officials shut down all boat traffic along the Mississippi River, while rescue teams search for five missing boaters.
The boaters disappeared after their supply ship the "Lee III" collided with another vessel Saturday near the mouth of the river. The ship sank blocking the 'Southwest Pass,' the only channel that large vessels can use to enter the Mississippi.
Coast Guard teams are searching both by air and by land for the missing crew, while Navy salvage divers are examining the damage to help investigators learn what caused the wreck.
Executives at the port and police told WLOX News that they got the final word about 9 or 10 Saturday night, and had to make preparations in a hurry. The ship docked at the port's West pier. If you remember last summer's voyages, the ship docked on the east pier. Sunday's early morning challenge was to unload the 3300 passengers and get them back to New Orleans.
"The ship was unbelievable," one passenger said as he exited the ship. How do you feel about coming into Mississippi? "Hey, what are you going do I feel bad for the [drown crew members]."
Passengers disembarked the conquest and were loaded onto buses back to New Orleans. Cruise officials looked for every available bus within 50 miles, but still came up short.
"Today it's just very frustrating for us, as well as obviously the passengers trying to get out of here and nothing's set up the same way as it was," bus driver Lewis Sanders said.
And that's because Port officials had to make several last minute scheduling changes to accommodate the huge ship. Sanders drivers a bus for Louisiana Coach Trailways. Last summer, when the Conquest was docked in Gulfport he made many of the trips back and forth to New Orleans and had no complaints. At noon, he had already been waiting 6 1/2 hours to load his first passenger.
"We thought today would be a big problem and obviously it's turned out to be a big problem, a logistical nightmare," Sanders said.
"I don't think that any of the decision makers in Carnival hesitated about calling us yesterday," Gulfport Port Director Don Allee said.
Allee said he used his knowledge and experiences from last summer's voyages out of Gulfport to formulate plans for this unexpected arrival.
"We learned from our experience last year. I have great support from my operations and port personnel, we got the Gulfport police involved early. We had all of the Federal inspection agencies involved; US Coast Guard had to be involved," Allee said.
Gulfport police set barricades in place to control the flow of passengers on and off the ship. Police also wanted to keep the flow of traffic moving smoothly as well.
"Our big concern is just for the public safety aspects, we had some concerns with traffic when we heard they were coming and the fact that they are busing most of the passengers back and forth has really alleviated that concern," Gulfport Police Chief Steve Barnes said.
"Tomorrow they're already anticipating the Holiday possibly coming in over here. DMI has asked us how much equipment we have available for tomorrow to do the same scenario, hopefully a lot smoother," Sanders said.
Monday, another 4100 people are due into New Orleans on two more cruise ships, but those ships will also need to find another port unless the Coast Guard re-opens the river to traffic, but officials say that unlikely.
Carnival Cruise Lines officials would like the 1500 passenger 'Holiday' to come here but because of cargo ships already scheduled to use our port tomorrow it will likely go to the port of Mobile.
Coast Guard leaders say they don't know when the river will be re-opened. The Conquest will dock here overnight and continue to load passengers. The ship is set to sail Monday at approximately 6 PM.