Intrepid ready to return to West Side

September 28, 2008 6:14:08 PM PDT
Almost two years after being pried ignominiously from the mud by a phalanx of huffing tugboats and towed off to a shipyard for a major overhaul, the historic aircraft carrier Intrepid is returning home to resume its latter-day career as a floating museum. Freshly painted in naval "haze gray" and once again shipshape from stem to stern, the fabled survivor of Pacific war battles and kamikaze suicide plane attacks will be towed up New York Harbor and slotted into its familiar Hudson River berth on Oct. 2.

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum will reopen to the public on Nov. 8, with a large celebration on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

"With everything else that's going on, it may seem like a pimple on an elephant but I can't tell you how excited we are," said Bill White, president of the Intrepid, who spent much of the past year lining up private benefactors to help finance the ship's 22-month, $120 milion restoration.

On the enclosed hangar deck, the museum will offer new exhibits and facilities for public events, along with visitor access to crew quarters and other spaces previously off limits.

The outdoor flight deck array of some 30 vintage aircraft has five additions - a pair of Soviet-designed MiG fighters, a Grumman F11F fighter that in the 1960s was part of the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team, and two 1950s-era helicopters.

Among five retired World War II aircraft carriers serving today as museums, none has a record to match Intrepid's. Launched in 1943, it fought in six major Pacific campaigns, losing 270 crew members - many of them in five Japanese kamikaze attacks. It also served in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was twice a recovery ship for NASA astronauts before being decommissioned in 1974.

Later marked for the scrapyard, the 36,000-ton relic was rescued in 1981 by real estate developer and philanthropist Zachary Fisher, who brought it to New York to be turned into the museum that in recent years has attracted 750,000 visitors annually, its officials say. In 1986 it was designated a national historic landmark.

In 2005, after 23 years, both vessel and pier were deemed in serious need of restoration. But when a team of powerful tugboats tried to dislodge the ship, its rudder and four 15-foot bronze screws dug into what Army engineers would later call an underwater "speed bump" - 17 feet of accumulated mud.

After that much-ridiculed fiasco, three weeks of dredging finally freed the ship to be moved to a Bayonne, N.J., drydock on Dec. 6, 2006 - the day before the Pearl Harbor anniversary.

Internal work was performed later on Staten Island.

According to White, overall costs for the ship's restoration topped out close to $120 million - $55 million for the ship and $65 million to rebuild Pier 86 with new space for a British Airways Concorde supersonic jet that had been on a barge nearby.

The Army and Navy spent another $20 million to dredge a new trench to cradle the carrier's 900-foot hull.

Timed to coincide with the ship's return is the publication of a book, "Intrepid: The Epic Story of America's Most Legendary Warship," co-authored by White and ex-Navy pilot Robert Gandt, with a foreword by presidential candidate John McCain, who served on Intrepid in pre-Vietnam War days.

White also heads the Fisher-created Intrepid Foundation, whose projects range from education to the Fallen Heroes Fund, supporting families of war dead and wounded. Its latest project is a new state-of-the-art treatment center for traumatic brain injuries at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.

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