Retired warship pulls in tourists


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Posted by on March 27, 2005 at 11:50:31:

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Pensacola gets a needed boost from the destined-to-be-sunk USS Oriskany.

PENSACOLA -- The spectral vision of a hulking "ghost ship" in the distance was more than Gladys LeBarre and her nephew could resist.

Intrigued, they took a detour off Interstate 10 and drove seven miles south to the Port of Pensacola -- just as scores of other people have done in recent weeks.

"We saw it from a ways out on the highway, so we had to come see what it was," said LeBarre of Foley, Ala.

Destined to become the world's largest man-made reef, the 888-foot USS Oriskany was stripped to its steel bones and towed from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Pensacola in December in preparation for its sinking.

The retired aircraft carrier's date with the deep has been delayed while environmental permits are sought. In the interim, the storied "Mighty O" has become an unexpected tourist attraction in a Gulf Coast city that sorely needs one.

The community's waterfront resorts and white-sand beaches are still recovering from Hurricane Ivan. So Pensacola residents are glad to see self-guided visitors appear at Commendencia Slip in the downtown harbor.

They trek past boarded storefronts and homes draped in blue tarps to stand and crane their necks at the rusty but still imposing warship that served in Korea and Vietnam. The Oriskany also was the setting for The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a 1955 film with William Holden, Mickey Rooney and Grace Kelly.

McCain once served aboard

A small sign posted on the sidewalk offers a glimpse into the history of the carrier whose former crew members include astronaut Alan Shepard and POW survivors Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale.

The sign notes that the Oriskany was struck by one of the U.S. Navy's great tragedies, a deadly onboard fire that killed scores of Navy pilots and crew members. Yet the ship was repaired and served several more tours of heavy duty off Vietnam's coast.

"I'm a big history buff, so I think it's a shame they are going to sink it. It should be a museum," said LeBarre's nephew, Joe Majors of Cleveland.

That has been a persistent sentiment expressed by the Oriskany's accidental tourists, to the surprise of local officials.

"A lot of the veterans say they think it is a bad idea to sink such an honorable warship with a great record. But I tell them that few communities could foot the bill to turn it into a museum," said former Oriskany crewman Robert Price, 58, of Gulf Breeze.

Price, a retired Navy chaplain who survived the Oriskany's disastrous fire, gives a "parking-lot lecture" about the warship to as many as 60 visitors every Saturday.

He and others note that the city is considering building a maritime museum elsewhere. But the massive vessel has been stripped of wiring, plumbing, mechanics and furnishings, making it too costly to transform it for that use.

"The Oriskany is in no shape to rebirth as a museum. It has one destiny, and that is about 212 feet down," said Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism and development for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

Pensacola won sinking right

The retired carrier was towed to Pensacola -- home to a naval air station where generations of pilots have trained -- after local leaders won the right to make a reef of it. In winning the 27,100-ton prize, they beat out five other coastal states as well as in-state rivals from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties.

The Navy will put up an estimated $2.8 million for the scuttling. Escambia County pledged an additional $1 million toward the job. Officials expect the Oriskany to pay dividends as an attraction for anglers and divers.

Local contributors to that cause included the organizers of the Red Snapper World Championship fishing tournament and the Scuba Shack, one of many area dive shops and charter operators.

"Out in our Gulf, there is nothing but sand, so we don't have coral reefs. If we didn't have the artificial reefs, we wouldn't have many barracuda, snapper, grouper, amberjack, lobsters or other tropical fish here," said charter-boat captain Gene Ferguson, a Scuba Shack co-owner.

The Oriskany will be a "perpetual moneymaker" that doesn't have to be maintained, painted or repaired, he said.

Nautical nooks and crannies on artificial reefs serve as breeding grounds for microorganisms that attract small fish, which attract bigger fish, including some with spending money: tourists, experts say. Visitors to other artificial reefs off five Panhandle counties spent $358 million during a 12-month period, according to a 1998 study co-authored by Florida State University business professor Mark Bonn.

Ship almost became scrap

The Oriskany nearly became recycled scrap instead of an aquatic attraction. Commissioned in 1950 and retired 25 years later, the carrier was sold for scrap in 1995. But the contractor defaulted on the deal, and the Navy repossessed it.

It is now set to become the first of at least 18 obsolete Navy ships to be used as artificial reefs under provisions established by the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act. There are an additional 100 ships controlled by the Maritime Administration that also could be sunk, officials said.

The Oriskany's sinking has been delayed until environmental scientists have completed a study to be sure there is no risk to aquatic life from materials in the remaining components of the ship, Robert Turpin, chief of Marine Resources, Escambia County, said. Once EPA permits are obtained, the carrier will be deep-sixed -- probably after the end of the 2005 hurricane season in November or early 2006. It will rest in about 225 feet of water nearly 25 miles offshore. Most divers will be able to explore its upper tiers.

On the bottom, it will join a motley assemblage of artificial reefs. Some were sunk intentionally. Unfriendly fire, bad luck or foul weather downed others. The man-made reefs include sunken battleships, schooners, barges, tugs, a torpedoed Russian freighter, crashed fighter jets and a few oil rigs.

The Navy flattop also will join a small armada of Army tanks sunk to become "fish tanks" and more than 200 fiberglass containers welded together to create what divers dubbed the "Grouper Condos."

1966 fire killed 44 aboard

The Oriskany will settle to the bottom stripped of its weaponry and maritime fittings -- but not of its proud history.

In 1952 and 1953, it served with the U.S. 7th Fleet off Korea, and its aircraft dropped 4,600 tons of bombs, fired more than a million rounds and took part in the first multijet dogfight in naval history.

Later, the Oriskany did seven tours off the coast of Vietnam. Its Carrier Air Wing 16 flew more than 12,000 combat sorties in one early deployment -- another naval record.

The carrier was in the Gulf of Tonkin on Oct. 27, 1966, when a magnesium flare was dropped and ignited other flares and artillery rockets. The fire spread through five decks and to aircraft onboard. Forty-four crew members and pilots were killed.

Yeoman Robert Price, then 19, was awakened by alarms and choking smoke. He joined a crew dropping 250-pound bombs over the side to keep them from exploding.

"All in all, it was quite a day," he recalled.

Pensacola officials hope to host Sen. McCain and other former crew members at a ceremony prior to the Oriskany sinking. But many already have come to pay their respects quietly.

"One woman showed me a picture of her son who died when his plane was shot down off the Oriskany," Price said. "She said that when the ship was brought here last December, it was like her son had come back for Christmas."




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