With a year to go before it even touches the water, the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS New York has already made history — twice. It was built with 24 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center, and it survived Hurricane Katrina.
That combination of disasters gives the ship a unique standing among the 500 or so Avondale, La., shipyard workers building it, said Tony Quaglino, a crane superintendent who postponed retirement to have a hand in the New York’s construction.
“I think Katrina made us more aware of the tragedy in New York,” said the 66-year-old Quaglino. “One was manmade, one was natural, but they’re both a common bond.”
USS New York is about 45 percent complete and should be ready for launch in mid-2007. Katrina disrupted construction when it pounded the Gulf Coast last summer, but the 684-foot vessel escaped serious damage, and workers were back at the yard near New Orleans two weeks after the storm.
The ship was an impetus for many of the yard’s thousands of workers to return to the job, even though hundreds lost their homes, Quaglino and others said.
Job’s more than just the job
Northrop Grumman employed 6,500 at Avondale before Katrina. Today, roughly 5,500 are back on the job, working on the New York and three other vessels. More than 200 employees who lost their homes to Katrina are living at the shipyard, some on a Navy barge and others in bunk-style housing.
“Their dedication and devotion to duty has been, to say the least, epic,” Philip Teel, a vice president for Northrop Grumman Corp. and head of its ship systems division, told a Navy League dinner audience in New York on March 22.
“It sounds trite, but I saw it in their eyes,” Teel said in a separate interview. “These are very patriotic people, and the fact that the ship has steel from the trade center is a source of great pride. They view it as something incredibly special. They’re building it for the nation.”
USS New York is the fifth in a new class of warship — designed for missions that include special operations against terrorists. It will carry a crew of 360 sailors and 700 combat-ready Marines to be delivered ashore by helicopters and assault craft.
A gift for bin Laden
“It would be fitting if the first mission this ship would go on is to make sure that bin Laden is taken out, his terrorist organization is taken out,” said Glenn Clement, a paint foreman. “He came in through the back door and knocked our towers down and [the New York] is coming right through the front door, and we want them to know that.”
When terrorists crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, destroying the twin towers and killing nearly 2,800 people, the $700 million ship was already on the drawing board but had not been assigned a name.
Months later, New York Gov. George Pataki asked the Navy to commemorate the disaster by reviving the name New York for a ship whose role would include fighting terrorism. That required an exception to Navy policy of assigning state names only to nuclear submarines, as they had been to battleships in earlier era.
Then-Navy Secretary Gordon England, in announcing the decision, said the New York would “project American power to the far corners of the Earth and support the cause of freedom well into the 21st century.” Its motto is “Never Forget,” a slogan among New Yorkers since Sept. 11.
‘Total reverence’ for steel
Steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite, La., to cast the ship’s bow section. When it was poured into the molds on Sept. 9, 2003, “those big rough steelworkers treated it with total reverence,” recalled Navy Capt. Kevin Wensing, who was there. “It was a spiritual moment for everybody there.”
Junior Chavers, foundry operations manager, said that when the trade center steel first arrived, he touched it with his hand and the “hair on my neck stood up.”
“It had a big meaning to it for all of us,” he said. “They knocked us down. They can’t keep us down. We’re going to be back.”
Later ships in the class will include USS Arlington, the location of the Pentagon, also struck by a hijacked jetliner on Sept. 11, and USS Somerset, named for the Pennsylvania county where United Flight 93 crashed after its passengers fought off hijackers apparently planning to attack another Washington target.
The New York revives a name borne by at least seven previous ships — most recently the nuclear submarine SSN New York City, retired in 1997 after 18 years service.