After more than half a century of wartime valor, maritime tragedy and cinematic triumph, the aircraft carrier Oriskany is preparing for its final mission: sinking into an afterlife as an artificial reef.
But being transformed into an attraction for anglers and divers in the Gulf of Mexico is proving one of the more challenging assignments for the storied and long-retired ship. Tons of toxic materials have had to be stripped from its rusted carcass and the Navy's civilian salvagers have prepared its warren of compartments to take on water in strict martial order.
"The Navy builds carriers to float, not to sink," Capt. Lawrence M. Jones, inactive ships manager, says of the difficulty in scuttling a vessel designed to withstand torpedoes and air strikes.
But sink it must, to fulfill the cost-cutting aims of the Navy and the recreational dreams of those claiming the vessel for its last tour of duty.
Although thousands of artificial reefs have been created along U.S. coastlines, the 900-foot-long Oriskany is the largest vessel ever designated for sea-bottom service.
Weather permitting, the now-corroded carrier that was home to 3,460 sailors -- including a future Sen. John McCain -- and 80 aircraft during the wars in Korea and Vietnam will be towed 24 miles offshore on Tuesday and sunk a day later. To minimize the risk of storms or tidal action affecting its position, it will be aligned north to south, bow out and stern to the distant shoreline.
Early on sinking day, the Navy and its civilian scrappers, Resolve Marine Group of Port Everglades, Fla., will detonate preset charges to punch the last crucial holes in the hull to allow the carrier to take on seawater at a strategic pace and pattern so that it sinks "even keel, even trim." The slow-motion belly flop is expected to last at least five hours.
"You're not going to see anything on the outside of the ship," Denise Johnston, Resolve Marine's vice president, warned would-be onlookers who might be expecting the wham-bam results of a high-rise building demolition. The Navy will establish a cordon around the Oriskany, but curious locals, visitors and veterans still plan to watch the planned sunrise sinking from boats a mile away.
One who hopes to be among the spectators is Charles Tinker, a retired Navy captain who was a 34-year-old fighter squadron pilot when the Oriskany endured its deadliest incident, an Oct. 26, 1966, fire that took the lives of 44 shipmates.
"I've got a sentimental feeling toward the ship. I spent a lot of my life aboard, an important part of my life," said Tinker of his two separate tours of Oriskany duty. He remembers the harrowing fire "as if it was last week."
Sending the Oriskany to a watery grave for the enjoyment of tourists "initially didn't sit too well," Tinker said. But with time he's come to regard the reef project as a way of keeping the carrier in public service instead of in the scrap yard.
"There's some vets who think it's not dignified" to sink the Oriskany, said Denny Earl, another Vietnam-era flier. Earl, an avid diver, isn't among them.
"A lot of ships are sold for scrap," he said. "To me, being converted to razor blades is not very dignified either." Now 65, Earl plans to pay an undersea visit to the old warship as soon as state authorities deem it opened, likely within a week of the sinking.
Earl earned citations for exceptional valor during the Vietnam War when, wounded in both legs by enemy fire, he dropped his payload and returned his A-4 Skyhawk for a textbook landing on the Oriskany while banging his fist against the cockpit window to stay conscious.
It was also from the deck of the Oriskany and in a Skyhawk that Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III flew off for a raid over North Vietnam in 1967. He was shot down, captured and tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war, an experience that helped mold the Arizona Republican's current views on the treatment of war-on-terrorism suspects.
Named for the New York state battleground where the tide of the Revolutionary War turned in 1777, the Oriskany was authorized for construction by Congress in the heat of World War II, launched two months after that war ended and commissioned almost five years later on Sept. 25, 1950, when the Korean War was already in progress.
Early in its active duty career, the Oriskany became a Hollywood backdrop. Scenes were shot aboard the carrier for "The Bridges of Toko-Ri," a 1955 Korean War drama starring William Holden and Grace Kelly. The ship was still rolling up film credits eight years ago when it appeared in "What Dreams May Come," a fantasy afterlife drama starring Robin Williams.
Decommissioned in 1976 and maintained for possible reactivation until it was stricken from the naval registry 13 years later, the Oriskany was sold for scrap in 1994 but the contractor went bankrupt and the Navy repossessed the ship in 1997. A marine contractor towed the rusting hulk from Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, Calif., around Cape Horn to Beaumont, Texas, in 1999, where it languished for four years in the Port Neches River.
Faced with costly maintenance for an ever-growing fleet of inactive ships, the Navy began exploring alternatives. One possibility was working with maritime communities to incorporate vessels in their waterfront attractions. The Navy designated the Oriskany for the reefing project in 2003, when Pensacola civic boosters and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission expressed interest in developing a place where sea life could congregate and multiply, and thousands of visitors could come to catch or observe them. The ship was towed to Corpus Christi, Texas, for pre-sinking preparations, then here for its final port call on March 22.
While the peripatetic preparations for its role as a reef certainly cost in the millions, neither naval nor civilian agencies can say how much has been spent. Research, upkeep, towing and manpower came out of various federal budgets in the three years since the reefing decision.
In concert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy worked out a process for stripping the ship of content that could pose risks to fish or humans. Under the EPA's Best Management Practice guidelines, the Navy and Resolve Marine have removed asbestos, oil and fuel soaked up by the wooden deck over 26 years as a flying platform as well as paint, insulation and other potential pollutants. All liquid polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were removed, as well as all but 700 pounds of the now-banned oily compound from solids like felt gaskets and cabling. The remaining PCBs represent less than 50 parts per million in the materials in which they are embedded and are thus allowable under EPA guidelines.
Before being towed here from Texas, the Oriskany was shorn of its mast and other protrusions that could snag nets or endanger divers. Some parts of its intricate innards were welded shut to prevent overly ambitious explorers from getting trapped.
Despite what they contend are the best-laid plans, those orchestrating the carrier's sinking concede fate could literally upend their project's culmination. Unexpected winds, incomplete perforations or too much residual buoyancy in the vessel could keep the plummeting behemoth from its intended keel landing.
When private diving groups brought the retired Navy landing ship Spiegel Grove to Key Largo in 2002, they had intended a similar upright landing but the vessel sank prematurely and landed on its side. After costly efforts to right it failed, Hurricane Dennis blew through the Keys last July and the storm's wave action rolled the ship into the position its sponsors had intended.
"Something could happen, but we've put a lot of effort in for it to go down the way we want it," said Jones, who is hoping to use the Oriskany scuttling plan as a model -- if all goes right -- for trimming his fleet of 70 inactive ships by at least 20 over the next few years.
The Coast Guard has signed off on the project as no threat to navigation. The topmost part of the submerged carrier, even if it sits up ramrod straight, will be 61 feet below the surface at mean low tide, allowing even the largest ships traveling in that part of the gulf to pass without hazard.
"We expect fisheries to improve as a result of the reef," said Michael Bailey of the recreational fisheries commission for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's southeast region. Disputing claims of some environmentalists that artificial reefs concentrate fish in a way that makes them more vulnerable to anglers, he said such reefs in the Florida Keys had proved to create new habitats, expand fish stocks and take pressure off the natural seafloor formations.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans considerable post-scuttling inspections and will deploy helicopters ahead of the sinking to ensure there are no sea turtles or dolphins nearby, said Lee Schlesinger of the Artificial Reef Administration.
A community replete with retired sailors and already a popular fishing and diving destination, the choice of Pensacola for the first inactive ship reef was championed by the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. A 2004 Florida State University study predicted surrounding Escambia County can expect $92 million a year in economic benefits from an artificial reef, said bureau spokeswoman Stacy Hopper.
Said Jones of the ship's new role: "Oriskany will be performing one final service to the nation, even when it's sunk."