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Intrepid Escapes N.Y. Harbor Mud and Heads for Repairs

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

NEW YORK, Dec. 5 -- The tugboats pulled. The Hudson River churned. And in the second attempt, the legendary World War II aircraft carrier USS Intrepid broke out of its Manhattan berth to travel to New Jersey for needed repairs after being stuck in the mud for a month.

"It feels great," said Felix Novelli, 81, an Intrepid veteran, as the ship moved silently and slowly Tuesday into the Hudson River's channel.

The first attempt to move the floating military museum on the five-mile trip across the Hudson to Bayonne, N.J., came Nov. 6. A crowd of 500 well-wishers, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and several former New York City mayors, gathered to send it off. But after settling for 24 years into the silt at a pier on Manhattan's West Side, the 27,000-ton ship got stuck fast. Its four massive propellers had screwed themselves into the sediment that had collected for decades.

So for the second attempt, planners reverted to that military adage: When all else fails, dig a trench.

This trench was 30 feet deep along the ship's starboard side to provide a passageway out of the silty berth and an escape for sediment scraped from the bottom of the ship.

Workers under Navy supervision also dredged around the clock for three weeks, using a crane to gather silt in buckets from the river's depths and deposit it in barges -- a total of 39,000 cubic yards of sediment, or the equivalent of 4,000 dump trucks, said Col. Nello L. Tortora, commander of the New York District Army Corps of Engineers.

Tuesday's move began under the light of a nearly full moon, as tugboats gathered at Pier 86. Shortly after 5 a.m., about 20 of the ship's veterans, including Novelli, boarded it anew and began wandering the icy flight deck dotted with fighter planes wrapped in plastic.

Inside, the Intrepid -- gunmetal gray and 17 stories tall at the top of the mainmast -- had the eerie feel of a place twice defunct, as a war vessel and as a museum. There are half-lit cavernous hangars and narrow passageways that echo and smell of rust and fuel. Those who remembered it from active duty told how Intrepid was launched in 1943 and spearheaded the naval defeat of Japan in the Pacific.

Novelli, a brash and wiry white-haired man who served on the ship from 1944 to 1946, recalled similar, though warmer, full-moon nights. He would start his day as a machinist mate 2nd class at 4 a.m. on the flight deck, smelling the gunfire and fuel. He recalled a kamikaze attack in which he took shelter in the ship's island on its starboard side.

"They would drop metal in the air to jam the radar screen," he said. "Then they would drop parachutes with flares that light up the ocean. Then the kamikazes would come." The sailors shot down four planes, but a fifth got through and came in toward the stern, killing one of Novelli's friends.

The stories continued as dawn broke, and talk shifted to whether this time the vessel would move. The highest tide of the month was expected about 9 a.m., giving the ship extra lift, so it would be important to dislodge the vessel then. By 8:30, five tugboats were hitched to the stern with foot-thick chains, pulling and pushing, to force the Intrepid to exit backward. But at first the ship barely budged.

"If it doesn't move, we'll get the World War II guys and pull it," said Winston S. Goodloe, 84, who served on the Intrepid from 1943 to 1946. "I think we did know more about what we're doing in those days," he said.

Up on the flight deck, facing New Jersey, Novelli stared into the water, both hands gripping the rail. "Come on, baby, give!" he yelled.

"It moved, it stalled, it wiggled, then it moved again, and then it stopped," said Capt. Brian Fournier, of McAllister Towing, who radioed commands from the Intrepid to the tugboats during the operation.

Fournier said that the Intrepid's main pilot, Capt. Jeffrey McAllister, was about to give up a second time -- but then decided to reposition one tugboat from pushing the carrier to pulling it. Slowly the hulking vessel began to move.

And the ship began her silent, motorless voyage, traveling about 2 knots, with pauses for a change of tide. The cost of the move is estimated at $3 million. It will cost $50,000 a day at the New Jersey dry dock for paint and other refurbishments while Pier 86 is reconstructed. The total cost of the project is about $60 million.

By the time Intrepid docked in Bayonne around 4 p.m., the veteran seamen were cold and tired. It had been a long voyage, said Bob Dougherty, 72, who worked in the ship's boiler room in the 1950s. "My sea duty is over for a while," he said.

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