The Liberian-registered Bright Field apparently lost power before striking the Riverwalk mall, a strip of stores and apartments overlooking the river. The impact sparked a fire as shoppers reported smelling gas.
The cargo ship destroyed parts of the multi-tiered shopping centre, as panicked shoppers and gamblers on the Flamingo Casino ship docked nearby jumped into the water. "The ground started shaking like an earthquake and everyone started running out," said Wood Thomas, who was standing in the mall at the time.
"It was just panic," he said. "People were trying to get off the casino boat. People began jumping into the river."
Nicole Trufant, who works at a clothing store on the mall, said her boss looked out of the window and saw the 760ft freighter coming towards him.
She and fellow employees dashed out of the mall before the ship struck. "Our store is in the water," she said.