Pensacola's tourism hopes rise with sinking of aircraft carrier
By Jim Stratton | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 18, 2006
OFF THE COAST OF PENSACOLA -- The new hope for Pensacola's tourism industry slipped under the waves Wednesday to rest 212 feet down on the sandy floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
The USS Oriskany, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that saw combat in Korea and Vietnam, sank less than an hour after precisely orchestrated explosions tore holes in the ship's underside, allowing salt water to pour in.
When the 888-foot ship finally settled to the bottom, it became the largest artificial reef in the world and the first in what the Navy hopes will be a series of old ships put to new use.
But for Pensacola, which beat out several other communities to get the ship, the Oriskany means much more. It is the linchpin of the city's ongoing effort to jump-start its hurricane-battered tourism industry.
"This is the biggest thing to happen in Pensacola in a long time," said Jim Phillips, a dive-shop owner and avid supporter of the Oriskany project. "At least the biggest positive thing."
Hurricane Ivan was bigger, but there was nothing positive about it. When the storm roared ashore in September 2004, it destroyed hotels, obliterated roads and washed away some of the state's most beautiful beaches.
Almost two years after the storm, signs of the damage are still evident as crews rebuild along the region's beaches. In 2005, tourism in some places clobbered by the storm was down 30 percent. This year, visitors are returning, but things aren't yet back to normal.
That's where the Oriskany comes in.
Sitting about 24 miles southeast of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the ship is expected to become a major draw for both charter-boat fishermen and scuba divers. Already, dive groups from around the world have signed up to dive around the sunken mini city, and some will be in town as early as this weekend.
"That whole industry is just going to take off," said Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. "To the diving world, this is like Mount Everest."
Economic-impact estimates are notoriously fuzzy, but officials say the ship will generate tens of millions of dollars for the local economy. The first wave of that has already arrived.
Hundreds of people came to Pensacola this week just to watch the sinking of the ship, commissioned in 1950 and named after an American Revolutionary War battle. Charter-boat captains were inundated by calls, with some visitors spending up to $1,000 to secure a spot on a boat.
Wednesday, dozens of those boats formed a bobbing, two-mile-wide circle, with the Oriskany, held in place by four 75,000-pound anchors, at its center. Patrol boats kept onlookers -- who arrived in everything from small fishing boats to multimillion-dollar yachts -- at least a mile away as crews made their final preparations.
At 10:25 a.m. CDT, the explosives were detonated, opening more than 20 holes in the bottom of the ship. Water rushed in, filling the ship's compartments.
Officials had estimated that the Oriskany would take four to six hours to sink. But by 11 a.m., just 35 minutes after the blasts, the ship's tower was already sliding beneath the surface of the Gulf.
A few moments later, the 32,000-ton ship, which cost the Navy about $20 million to sink, was gone -- but hardly forgotten.
The Oriskany was among the ships used by President Kennedy in a show of force during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. U.S. Sen. John McCain, then a Navy pilot, was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 after taking off from its flight deck and was held as a prisoner of war for five years. James Stockdale, later known as Ross Perot's vice-presidential running mate in 1992, also was shot down and held as a POW after flying from the ship.
In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, McCain said he had hoped the ship would be turned into a museum, but the artificial reef will "provide a lot of recreation and a lot of good times for people."
Susan Boggs is counting on the Oriskany to boost her charter-fishing business. Over time, the ship will become a haven for all sorts of fish and another place where Boggs, co-owner of Reel Surprise Charters in nearby Orange Beach, Ala., can take her customers.
Boggs said in recent years, many of the smaller charter operators had talked about selling out. The Oriskany may help them survive.