Friday, May 19, 2006

 

Navy divers inspect Oriskany site

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The Herald
By Melissa Nelson
May 18, 2006


PENSACOLA, Fla. - Anxious divers got their first look at the USS Oriskany Thursday, reporting that the ship landed in an upright position facing north to south when the Navy used explosives to sink the massive aircraft carrier a day earlier.

"All I could think was 'Holly cow,' just the sheer size of it. Diving it was far beyond what I had imagined," said Jim Phillips, who owns a Pensacola dive shop and had a contract to retrieve cameras The Discovery Channel placed aboard the ship during the sinking.

The divers brought their own video of the site back to the MBT Dive Shop late Thursday and other divers, anxious to see the Oriskany underwater for themselves, gasped as they saw the underwater water images of the famed carrier's bridge and battle stations.

"Oh it looks like that's going to be a fun dive. She's going to hold so many fish in all those nooks and crannies," said shop employee Paul Sjordal.

Navy divers were the first to dive the Oriskany early Thursday and issued their first reports around noon EST, said Patrick Nichols, a spokesman for Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The Navy said the Oriskany's flight deck was positioned at a depth of 150 feet as the ship settled into the sand.

But Phillips and his crew said their dive instruments indicated the flight deck at a depth of between 130 and 134 feet.

"We had several computers and dropped right down to the flight deck," said diver Fritz Sharar.

The site was expected to be opened for recreational diving Friday afternoon.

The depth of the flight deck is important because the maximum depth for recreation sport divers is about 132 feet, said Eilene Beard, a dive shop owner and Pensacola native who donated $25,000 in retirement savings to help the community promote the Oriskany project.

The first official reports of the 150-foot depth of the flight deck were a disappointment to Beard.

"The maximum sport diving depth is 132 feet and we'd hoped it wouldn't go below that, but there will be plenty of superstructure along the wheel house for sport divers," Beard said.

Divers who go beyond the 132-foot depth must be qualified in technical diving and breathe a combination of gases to reach the extended depths, she said.

The Navy sunk the massive Korean and Vietnam era aircraft carrier Wednesday morning 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola as a flotilla of boats filled with hundreds of Oriskany veterans watched. Many saluted as the Oriskany dipped below the ocean.

The ship, known as the "Mighty O" was the first warship sunk under a pilot program to dispose of old Navy vessels through reefing. The $20 million sinking was delayed for nearly two years by hurricanes and environmental permitting problems.

Pensacola leaders hope the sinking will provide an economic infusion by luring sport divers and fishermen.

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.

Phones rang nonstop at the MBT dive shop Thursday afternoon with customers who wanted to book trips to the Oriskany dive site.

Shop employee William Murphy said divers from Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand have made plans to dive the Oriskany this year.

Friends Sean McLemore and Frank Warfield of Pensacola were in the dive shop on Thursday finalizing their plans to dive the aircraft carrier on Sunday.

"We want to be one of the first to touch flight deck. It will be amazing to dive something that size, something so big. We've been waiting for this for three years," McLemore said.


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