USS Arizona Visitors Center Cracks Under Pressure

The USS Arizona Memorial's (search) visitors center was designed to accommodate 750,000 people a year when it was built in 1980, but today it's jammed with crowds more than twice that big — and it's literally bursting at the seams.

Portions of the shoreside building and plaza commemorating the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have settled as much as 30 inches and are still slowly sinking, and the concrete structure is cracking.

"Our office space is crammed, our visitor space is crammed, capacity is a significant issue on all fronts," said Douglas Lentz, the National Park Service (search) superintendent in charge of the visitors center. "Then you've got the structural integrity of the building."

Crowds at the memorial have grown over the years as interest in Pearl Harbor (search) has increased, fueled in part by Hollywood's sustained interest in World War II, including a blockbuster movie about the attack. The shock of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 drew comparisons to Pearl Harbor and sparked interest among a new generation.

A total of 2,390 people were killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack that drew the United States into World War II.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund is working to raise $34 million to replace the visitors center, the starting point for ferry rides across the harbor to the white memorial that straddles the sunken Arizona, which still contains the remains of 1,177 sailors.

The group — whose honorary chairmen include actor Tom Hanks and Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii and John McCain, R-Ariz. — wants to raise enough money to break ground for a new center in three to five years. Mathew Sgan, the fund senior vice president, said the group is very pleased with its progress and is soliciting corporate donations.

The one-story, open-air visitors center building was constructed on fill material that was dredged from Pearl Harbor decades earlier and was expected to settle 18 inches. Its architects even designed in the ability to raise the building using concrete shims.

But it already has been raised four times, causing cracks in the concrete walls that have exposed steel reinforcing rods to moisture.

Last year, engineers gave the building a life expectancy of just five to 10 more years.

Lentz said a new center will be built with lighter materials atop pilings that go deep into the ground to prevent sinking. There is also an option of building it on a floating foundation.

The current museum has 2,500 square feet of space with barely enough room for crowds of visitors to squeeze between the displays, which include a Japanese torpedo recovered from the harbor and a detailed model of the Japanese aircraft carrier from which attack planes were launched.

Preliminary plans for the new center call for 24,000 square feet of space, with more restrooms and a 5,400-square-foot museum to display more artifacts.

As aging Pearl Harbor survivors die, their families often donate historic artifacts and pictures to the museum, but the donations end up in storage because they can't fit in the museum, Sgan said.

"We could never display everything, but if we had a better facility we could display more and we could also rotate things in," Sgan said.

During the peak summer months, the center averages 4,500 visitors daily. Some of them have to wait for two hours to watch a 30-minute film — which includes U.S. and Japanese footage of the attack — and to be ferried out to the monument at the submerged battleship, which still leaks droplets of oil from its tanks.

The National Park Service estimated the memorial will attract 1.6 million visitors this year, up from 1.5 million in 2003.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said he will push to make funding the project a "major focus" of the House Committee on Resources.

"When this was first put together, nobody had any idea that there was going to be this kind of ongoing response decade after decade," Abercrombie said. "Not only were the intentions good at the beginning, but I think the planning for it was as much as was able to be conceived at the time."