One Last Mission for Ship Sunk in Pearl Harbor Attack

Timothy J. Foecke of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg uses a math model to study the rate of the Arizona's deterioration and to predict the release of thousands of gallons of oil.
Timothy J. Foecke of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg uses a math model to study the rate of the Arizona's deterioration and to predict the release of thousands of gallons of oil. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

For 65 years, the wreck of the USS Arizona has been leaking oil from its grave at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, staining the water, visitors often say, as if it were the ship's blood.

The leaks come from about 500,000 gallons of thick, bunker C fuel oil that remain trapped in the deteriorating hulk -- oil whose "catastrophic" release experts now think is inevitable.

Today, on the anniversary of the attack that plunged the United States into World War II, scientists at a federal research center in Gaithersburg are trying to predict when that might happen. In five years? Or 50? And to do that, they are building a model of the ship: not of plastic and glue, but of data.

The experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology think it is the first mathematical model to simulate the deterioration of a sunken ship and could be used to predict the deterioration of hundreds of wrecks around the country.

Similar models, which are run with ultra-powerful computers, are used to forecast the weather, design cars and simulate crashes.

"To my knowledge, nobody has published or spoken of modeling the deterioration of sunken ships," said Timothy J. Foecke, a metallurgist at the institute who is supervising the work.

"What we're trying to do is . . . predict stability of shipwrecks," Foecke said. "In particular, we're working on the Arizona, but it also has application to hazardous wrecks . . . all around the coast, dating back to World War I. There's ships with munitions, with hazardous cargoes, with all kinds of different things."

The work is part of the USS Arizona Preservation Project, headed by the National Park Service and the USS Arizona Memorial.

"The overall project goal is to model and characterize the deterioration processes . . . to predict when we may have potential structural collapse," said Matthew A. Russell, project director. It is impossible to remove the oil from the ship because that would disturb what he said is "an enormous tomb."

On Dec. 6, 1941, the Arizona took on 1.2 million gallons of heavy fuel oil at its berth in Pearl Harbor. The ship was scheduled to make a Christmas trip back to the West Coast the next weekend. The fuel, which was so heavy it had to be atomized for use in the engines, weighed 4,000 tons and was stored in more than 200 tanks, or bunkers, spread across four deck levels throughout the vessel.

In the Japanese attack the next morning, a 1,700-pound bomb plunged through the ship's deck, detonating in an ammunition compartment. The explosion obliterated a section of the Arizona's bow, blasted backward toward the stern and vented out the smokestack. It also ignited much of the oil, which burned for three days.

The battleship -- three times the size of the Statue of Liberty -- settled to the bottom in 34 feet of water, along with the bodies of more than 1,100 sailors and Marines.


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