As hundreds of veterans looked on solemnly, Navy divers blew holes in a retired aircraft carrier and sent the 888-foot USS Oriskany to the bottom of the sea Wednesday, creating the world's largest manmade reef.

The rusted hulk took 37 minutes to slip beneath the waves, about 4 1/2 hours faster than predicted, after more than 500 pounds of plastic explosives went off with bright flashes of light and clouds of brown and gray smoke.

Korean and Vietnam War veterans aboard a flotilla of 300 charter boats watched from beyond a one-mile safety perimeter as the "Mighty O" went down in 212 feet of water, about 24 miles off Pensacola Beach.

Lloyd Quiter of North Collins, N.Y., who served four tours on the ship in Vietnam, played the attention-all-hands signal on his boatswain's pipe, and wept.

"I'm a little stunned. It's a little hard to take," he said.

After the blasts, an acrid smell hung in the air near the ship. The carrier went down stern first, the bow lifting up into the air and creating a giant spray of water as it came down. The blue ocean churned a foamy white as the deck — bright orange with rust — slid under. Hundreds of surrounding boats blew their horns in tribute.

The Oriskany (pronounced oh-RISK-uh-nee) became the first vessel sunk under a Navy program to dispose of old warships by turning them into diving attractions teeming with fish and other marine life.

Over the years, other ships have been turned into reefs, including the warship USS Spiegel Grove, a cargo vessel that was scuttled in 2002 off Key Largo. But that was a civilian project, paid for with a combination of county and private money.

Jack Witter of Fort Pierce, who served as an aviation ordnance operator during the Korean War, joined 34 other veterans to watch the Oriskany go down. The group saluted as the ship vanished underwater.

"I felt good about it," Witter said. "I guess there was a little tear in my eye because a good part of my life went down with her, but it was a fitting end for a good ship."

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.

McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 after taking off from the Oriskany and was held as a prisoner of war for five years.

"It was a small, old carrier that fought very valiantly, and I'm very proud to have been a part of the air wing that served with great courage and distinction," McCain told a news network 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."

The $20 million sinking was delayed for nearly two years by hurricanes and environmental permitting problems. The ship will not be open to recreational divers until at least Friday, so that Navy divers can explore the wreck and check for any hazards.

The Environmental Protection Agency in February approved the sinking of the ship, which had toxins in its electrical cables, insulation and paint. EPA officials said the toxins will slowly leach out over the estimated 100 years it will take the carrier to rust away, and should pose no danger to marine life.

Marine wildlife experts planned to monitor the waters.

Local leaders hope the reef brings a long-awaited economic infusion from sport divers and fishermen. A 2004 Florida State University study estimated Escambia County would see $92 million a year in economic benefits from an artificial reef.