KEY WEST — Aboard the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a massive World War II ship last used by the Air Force to track missiles and spacecraft, it's anything but business as usual.
Crews are preparing the decommissioned ship for sinking Wednesday 7 miles off Key West, where it will become one of the world's biggest artificial reefs. Explosives attached to the ship's hull beneath the water level will be detonated to open it for flooding, which should quickly send it to the sea floor. The 17,000-ton, 523-foot-long ship will be sunk on a sandy bottom in about 140 feet of clear water.
"Don't go to the bathroom. Don't go get a beer. It should be under three minutes for the ship to fully deploy onto the bottom," said Joe Weatherby, project organizer at Reefmakers, a Moorestown, N.J., company that specializes in acquiring, preparing and sinking boats to create artificial reefs.
It's a project that has been years in the making.
The cost is about $8.6 million, from acquiring the ship to cleaning it. Officials in the Keys expect it to generate up to $8 million in annual tourism-related revenue, mostly from divers flocking to get a look at the underwater spectacle.
The idea is to not only to attract tourists, but to help protect the Keys' natural reefs, already suffering from excessive diving, snorkeling and fishing along with warming ocean temperatures. Weatherby said people — and fish — will now be drawn to the wreck from nearby natural coral, "giving the reef a breather, which is what it needs."
Preparation for sinking has taken months of inspections and cleanup to remove contaminants. Workers hauled off more than a million feet of wire, 1,500 vent gaskets, dozens of watertight steel doors, 81 bags of asbestos, 193 tons of potentially cancer-causing substances, 46 tons of garbage that could come loose and float to the surface, 300 pounds of materials containing mercury and 185 55-gallon drums of paint chips. The cleanup was performed at two Norfolk, Va., shipyards. The Vandenberg began as the Gen. Harry Taylor and was later commissioned as a transport vessel.