Warship becomes an artificial reef

May 28, 2009 2:52:36 PM PDT
A 13-year project to create a new artificial reef off the Florida Keys for sport divers and anglers culminated Wednesday with the scuttling of a 523-foot-long former U.S. Air Force missile tracking ship. It took just a minute and 54 seconds to sink the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg after demolition experts triggered a series of explosives that lined both sides of the ship's bilge area below the waterline. Key West City Manager and Vandenberg project administrator Jim Scholl confirmed the ship settled on the bottom of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in an upright position.

A dive team verified that all charges exploded, Scholl said, but said they were continuing assessments to verify the wreck's structural integrity before opening it up to the public for diving.

"It was a pretty cool experience," said Joe Weatherby, who organized Artificial Reefs of the Keys in 1996 and chose the Vandenberg from about 400 decommissioned military ships rusting away in "Ghost Fleets" across the country. "We waited for it a real long time.

"We think this is really going to be a home run for both our environment and our economy down here," he said. "This is good business and at the same time we're taking pressure off our natural coral reefs."

Weatherby said it should not take long for the Vandenberg to attract fish.

"The marine life grows on the wreck and the little fish come and the big fish eat the little fish and just like that," he said.

The ship is now the second largest vessel in the world ever purposely sunk to become an artificial reef. The sinking also complete the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, a series of intentionally sunk vessels that begins off Key Largo with a former Navy landing ship dock, the Spiegel Grove, and ends with the Vandenberg.

Several of the ship's veterans witnessed the scuttling.

"I can't believe it could sink that fast," said Charles Patrick Sherlock, 64, a Cocoa Beach, Fla., resident who worked as a telemetry technician from 1976 to 78. "It's kind of scary to think about, actually, we used to live on that ship, and see how quick it went under.

"I am planning to come back in a few weeks with a group of guys (fellow Vandenberg veterans) who could not be here today, so we can all dive it," he said.

Ridding the vessel of contaminants consumed 70 percent of the $8.6 million project's funding resources and some 75,000 man-hours.

That work was done in two Norfolk, Va., shipyards.

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