As hundreds of veterans looked on solemnly, Navy divers blew holes in a retired aircraft carrier and sent the 888-foot USS Oriskany to the bottom of the sea Wednesday, forming the world’s largest deliberately created artificial reef.
Clouds of brown and gray smoke rose in the sky after more than 500 pounds of plastic explosives went off. The rusted hulk took about 37 minutes to slip beneath the waves, about four hours faster than predicted.
Korean and Vietnam War veterans aboard charter boats watched from beyond a one-mile safety perimeter as the “Mighty O” went down in 212 feet of water, about 24 miles off Pensacola Beach.
Lloyd Quiter of North Collins, N.Y., who served four tours on the ship in Vietnam, wept. “I’m a little stunned. It’s a little hard to take,” he said.
The aircraft carrier went down stern first, the bow lifting up into the air and creating one final spray of water as it sank. The water churned a foamy white as the deck slid under. Hundreds of surrounding boats blew their horns in tribute.
Navy plans for more
The Oriskany became the first vessel sunk under a new Navy program to dispose of old warships by turning them into reefs that can attract fish and other marine life.
Over the years, other ships have been turned into reefs, including the warship USS Spiegel Grove, a cargo vessel that was scuttled in 2002 off Key Largo. But that was a civilian project, paid for with a combination of county and private money.
The Oriskany, commissioned in 1950 and named after an American Revolutionary War battle, saw duty during the Korean War and was home to John McCain when the Navy pilot and future senator served in Vietnam. It was also among the ships used by President Kennedy in a show of force during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It was decommissioned in 1976.
McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 after taking off from the Oriskany and was held as a prisoner of war for five years.
The $20 million sinking was delayed for nearly two years by hurricanes and environmental permitting problems. The ship will not be open to recreational divers until at least Friday, so that Navy divers can explore the wreck and check for any hazards.
The Environmental Protection Agency in February approved sinking the ship, which had toxins in its electrical cables, insulation and paint. EPA officials said the toxins will slowly leach out over the estimated 100 years it will take the carrier to rust away, and should pose no danger to marine life.
Marine wildlife experts planned to monitor the waters.
Sinking had been delayed
Local leaders hope the reef brings a long-awaited economic infusion from sport divers and fishermen. A 2004 Florida State University study estimated Escambia County would see $92 million a year in economic benefits from an artificial reef.
The Navy selected Pensacola over sites proposed by Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina partly because of the city's close ties to naval aviation. The Pensacola Naval Air Station is the Navy's first such installation and has trained thousands of aviators over 90 years.
The sinking was delayed for several months as the EPA, outside scientists and the Navy assessed the risks of contaminants on board the warship.
The review procedure included a public comment period, during which time the ship was docked in Corpus Christi, Texas, where some environmental cleanup was done.