NEW ORLEANS — Launching of a new 420-foot Coast Guard ship--the service's largest--into the Mississippi River kicked up a wave of muddy water and debris that inundated a viewing stand and injured about 20 people Saturday.
Some suffered broken bones, but most of the injuries were minor cuts, bruises and scrapes, said Col. John Fortunato of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office.
After a christening ceremony, the ship, the Healy, was released into the river.
"When the ship went into the water it created a backsplash. It showered the spectators with water and debris from the river," Fortunato said.
About 30 or 40 dignitaries were drenched by the splash, which tossed sand, gravel and driftwood at least 50 feet from the ship into seats that were up to 15 feet off the ground, said Ed Winter, spokesman for shipbuilder Avondale Industries.
The Healy, a $236-million ship designed for research, breaking ice and resupplying polar bases, will carry a 75-member crew of scientists, officers and enlisted personnel.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose wife christened the Healy, was among those in the stands. Reached at his hotel room afterward, Stevens said he and his wife were unhurt.
About 15 people were treated at the scene, and several were taken to hospitals, he said.
"I don't know why it happened," Winter said. "We've launched hundreds of ships in a similar manner--side launches--and that's never happened before. It took all of us by surprise."
A side launch sends a ship sideways along skids 40 to 50 feet out into the river, parallel to the viewing stands. The ship hits the water another 10 to 20 feet farther out and rocks side to side--usually without incident.
"Side launches are always popular because they're so dramatic and pretty," Winter said, and spectators typically crowd viewing stand rails to watch.
Winter was with Mrs. Stevens when she broke the champagne bottle on the bow.
"It looked good from the bow end, but from the stern end, evidently there was a splash. . . . The viewing stands were a reasonable distance away. It must have kicked up pretty good," he said.
Planned post-launch speeches were canceled.
The icebreaker, the Coast Guard's first in 20 years, is named after 19th-century Coast Guard Capt. Michael A. Healy.