Scrapped for a penny: USS Forrestal, Navy's first supercarrier, begins final voyage

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Published February 09, 2014

| FoxNews.com

The U.S. Navy’s first supercarrier -- the long-decommissioned Forrestal -- has begun its final voyage to a Texas scrapyard, after the Pentagon tried to sell it, found no takers and had to pay a penny to get rid of it.

The 1,067-foot ship, which was shut down in 1993 after more than 38 years of service, was being towed Tuesday morning down the Delaware River and along the Eastern Seaboard before crossing the Gulf of Mexico to reach All Star Metals in Brownsville. U.S. Navy officials signed a 1-cent contract with the Texas company in October to dismantle the ship perhaps best known for a 1967 incident that killed 134 and injured more than 300 others, including a young Navy aviator named John McCain.

"We started our departure from the dock at 5:31 a.m.," All Star Metals President Nikhil Shah told FoxNews.com, adding that the trip should take roughly 17 days. "This is the largest ship that we’ve ever dismantled, and the largest ship the U.S. government has ever awarded to be dismantled. It’s a very big job to us."

Shah declined to specify the precise cost of towing and dismantling the behemoth ship, but said the figure was "in the millions."

All Star Metals hired Foss Marine Towing to drag the ship to its final destination, Shah said.

Named for James Forrestal, the former Navy secretary and the first U.S. Secretary of Defense, the carrier was lauded as the “biggest ship ever built” by Popular Science, which detailed it in its August 1954 issue. More than 16,000 engineers, draftsmen and builders worked on the ship, which took an estimated $217 million -- nearly $2 billion in today's dollars -- to build. Readers were amazed to learn that the ship featured enough air-conditioning equipment to cool New York City’s Empire State Building two-and-a-half times over. It launched on Dec. 11, 1954.

“Her 3,500 crewmen will use nearly twice as much water as the eight big boilers that feed her main turbines,” Popular Science reported. “To supply both needs, her water tanks must store nearly 400,000 gallons.”

The July 29, 1967, incident occurred while the ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. Stray voltage triggered a rocket to launch from an F-4 Phantom on the flight deck, ultimately striking an armed A-4 Skyhawk piloted by then-Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, who would later spend five years as a POW, serve in the U.S. Senate and unsuccessfully run for president. A chain reaction of fires and explosions ensued, causing a day-long fire aboard the ship’s deck, which was packed with planes. In addition to the deaths and injuries, 21 aircraft were damaged. The incident prompted changes within the Navy to damage control and disaster response training, as most of the sailors who were trained as firefighters were reportedly killed during the initial blast, forcing the remaining crew to improvise its rescue efforts.

After seven months of repairs, the ship returned to sea for more than two decades before ultimately being decommissioned in 1993. It was stationed in Newport, R.I., until 2010, when it was moved to Philadelphia’s Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility, where more than 20 decommissioned naval vessels are reportedly being stored for possible foreign sale transfer, donation or artificial reefing.

Naval officials tried to donate the historic ship to be used as a memorial or a museum, but no viable applications were received. Ken Killmeyer, historian for the USS Forrestal Association and a survivor of the 1967 incident, told FoxNews.com in October that the sale marked a “sad day” for all Americans.

While the ship could have made an excellent educational tool, Killmeyer said the “very costly” process to maintain massive aircraft carriers was difficult to overcome.

“If they’re not painting them or working on it somehow, it’s an odd day because they’re always maintaining something to keep them afloat,” Killmeyer told FoxNews.com in October. “The weather plays havoc on their exterior no matter what climate they’re in. The biggest expense is maintenance.”

Killmeyer, now 67, said he can still smell the “total devastation” aboard the ship and the broken sense of security felt by the crewmen, who thought they were much safer at sea compared to their counterparts on land.

“As crew members, we relive July 29, 1967, every time we hear a loud, unexplained noise, whether you’re at the beach or you’re in your office,” Killmeyer said. “Or, some people are affected by certain odors. When you smell flesh burnt from jet fuel, it kind of stays with you forever. You can’t get away from it.”

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