Workers try to clear Miss. bottleneck


NEW ORLEANS - The Mississippi River's main channel remained closed yesterday, stranding dozens of commercial and cruise ships for a third day as officials searched for the crew of a sunken supply vessel and scrambled to remove its wreckage.

By last night, the bodies of three of the missing men had been recovered, but officials expressed doubt that two others would be found alive. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jeff Murphy said the bodies might be trapped in the sunken ship.

Meanwhile, contractors battling strong currents and a thunderous storm 80 miles southeast of New Orleans held out hope that they could get a strap around the ship's stern to move it out of the commercial channel as early as today.

By last night, nearly 100 commercial ships filled with grain, coffee, plywood, natural gas and other goods were blocked from the Southwest Pass, the only route into and out of the Mississippi for large vessels.

Cruise ships carrying a combined 20,000 passengers were either docked indefinitely, altering their routes or meandering up and down the river, "just to give the passengers a diversion," said Gary LaGrange, director of the port of New Orleans.

The channel has been closed since Saturday morning, when the Lee III, a 178-foot ship that ferries supplies and personnel to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, sank amid dense fog after colliding with the Zim Mexico III, a 534-foot commercial vessel. The accident is under investigation. The Zim Mexico was damaged but reported no injuries to crew.

Analysts said it is difficult to predict how much of an effect the channel closure will have, but one recent study indicated that the combined economic impact of Louisiana ports is $30 billion annually.

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