USS Intrepid's exit mission from New York City scrubbed after it gets stuck in mud

Monday, November 6th 2006, 9:26 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) It was a send off of grand proportions: A police band sounded patriotic tunes, politicians pontificated, helicopters and escort vessels hovered.

From a pier, hundreds gathered to watch the USS Intrepid, a floating, mothballed aircraft carrier turned museum, be towed down the Hudson River to a New Jersey dry dock for a two year, $60 million renovation.

``The people doing this have moved a thousand ships bigger than the Intrepid,'' Intrepid President Bill White said, confident the mission would be a success. ``A ship that survived five kamikaze attacks is going to make it five miles down river.''

But the toots of salute were soon followed by a big jolt that signaled the beginning of the end for Monday's journey of the USS Intrepid.

Five powerful tugboats strained like the Little Engine That Could to budge the behemoth, which lurched and inched backward out of its berth. Its propellers got stuck in the mud. About an hour and only 15 feet later, the mud-churned Hudson resembled a frothy latte. The bountiful tide was subsiding.

Intrepid officials whipped out their cell phones and Blackberries. Amid an air of tremendous letdown, the mission was scrubbed.

``We had the sun, the moon and the stars in alignment, and it was just a very disappointing day for us,'' White said.

Officials weren't sure when or even whether they would try to move the Intrepid again or whether they might try instead to refurbish the ship in its Manhattan berth, White said. The next high tide is December 6th, but it will be about a foot lower than Monday's, he said.

Jeffrey McAllister, the lead tugboat pilot, said his firm's six tugs did everything they could, pulling the aircraft carrier with a combined 30,000 horsepower force.

``We had a lot of horsepower. The tide was right. The weather was right. But Mother Nature was against us,'' McAllister said.

The Intrepid, launched in 1943, is one of four Essex class carriers still afloat six decades after spearheading the naval defeat of Japan in the Pacific. It served during World War II the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and as a recovery ship for NASA astronauts. It has lost 270 crewmembers in battle.

Doomed to the scrap heap, it was purchased in 1981 by real estate developer Zachary Fisher, who realized his dream of turning the ship into the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum a year later. It has become a living memorial to the armed services and one of New York's major tourist attractions, drawing some 700,000 visitors a year. It also has served as an emergency center; the FBI used it as an operation center after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The carrier's move involved meticulous preparation worthy of its first departure for Pacific war combat in 1943. The failed journey, in all, cost about $250,000, officials said.

Once out in the Hudson's main channel, the tugs were to take the Intrepid on a five mile trek to a shipyard at Bayonne, New Jersey, past the World Trade Center site, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It was to return to New York City in 18 to 24 months.

The mission was timed to take advantage of the yearly high tide so the tugs could pull the ship out of the slip where it has rested in up to 17 feet of mud for the last 24 years. Removal of 600 tons of water from the Intrepid's ballast tanks gave the ship added buoyancy, and dredges removed 15,000 cubic yards of mud to create a channel from dockside to deeper water.

But in the end, the mud won.

The carrier's refurbishment is to include the opening of more interior spaces to the public, an upgrade of its exhibits and a bow to stern paint job in naval haze-gray. Its pier also will be rebuilt.

The ship's collection of aircraft had been shrink wrapped in plastic cocoons to protect it from the elements during the rehabilitation. The British Airways Concorde supersonic jetliner that has been part of the Intrepid museum exhibit since 2004 will be temporarily relocated outside a new recreational center at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Felix Novelli, 81, a former crew member who had gathered on the deck at dawn to watch the journey, was disappointed but hopeful.

``I'm sad. I couldn't show her off. But don't lose heart; she'll do us proud,'' Novelli said.