After days of strong winds and heaving swells that hampered salvage operations, the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga was hoisted to the surface yesterday. The 51-year-old cutter, its side gashed, seemed frail and crippled in its slings, suspended from the twin spires of floating cranes.
The massive hole gouged in the ship's right side when it collided with the Argentine freighter Santa Cruz II on Oct. 20, indicated the cutter would have cleared the freighter's bow a few seconds later, according to one Coast Guard official.
Salvage divers lowered the Cuyahoga's flag to half staff, a final tribute to the 11 crewmen who perished aboard the cutter 10 days ago.
Coast Guard divers described the inside of the ship as "mangle of charts and boards being pulled out, just a big mess."
"We could not find the log book, not even a page," one diver was heard to say over a ship radio.
Shortly after the cutter surfaced, FBI agents boarded the vessel and began combing through the debris in search of charts and navigational instruments that could shed more light on the cause of this, one of the worst Coast Guard tragedies in recent years.
Coast Guard observers, many of whom had known crew members of the Cuyahoga, shook their heads in grief and disbelief as the battered ship was raised to the waterline. The point of impact indicated the Cuyahoga was struck in the area of the wardroom and galley, well behind the midship point.
"When you knew so many people but there it's just said. We all realize we could have been on there. It could have been us," said Chief Ken Yates, as he looked through binoculars from a press boat 500 yards from the stricken vessel.
The cutter's railing was twisted chaotically, its teak planks torn from the deck, the holde where the 520-foot coal freighter had slammed into the 127-foot cutter surrounded by mangled steel.
"It looked like the other ship climbed on the top and just pushed it under. I imagine [the Cuyahoga] being so small, the other boat didn't even feel it," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Tim Leahy, 25, a cook on board the Coast Guard cutter Point Arena.
Coast guardsmen at the scene were stunned by the stark reality of the crippled ship that had entombed crew members.
"We are going over the blood of the cutter," said Cmdr. Jack Goldhorpe, as the boat carrying reporters cut through a 500-yard slick of diesel fuel that lay on the surface around the cutter.
For the first time in days the skies were azure and the bay placid, but shortly after the vessel was raised to its black waterline the sky darkened and the waters of the Chespeake Bay seemed to swell.
From the location of the damage 80 feet from the cutter's bow and the vessel's reported 8-knot speed it would have cleared the freighter's bow "in another four seconds," averting the tragedy, according to Goldthorpe.
The Coast Guard cordoned off a two-mile area around the salvage site, diverting the usual heavy flow of freighters, fishing vessels and tour boats around the site.
A flotilla of three 80-foot Coast Guard cutters, a tug, a buoy tender and a number of 41-foot craft encircled the salvage operation that was littered with debris including a mattress picked up by one of the launches.
As the sun was setting over Smith Point, the hobbled Cuyahoga was lowered onto keel blocks aboard a Navy barge. It was to be towed to Portsmouth, Va., where members of the Marine board of inquiry are scheduled to inspect the vessel today. The board's hearings will resume tomorrow in Baltimore.
If the 51-year-old cutter, the oldest in the Coast Guard, cannot be made seaworthy, it could be turned over to the General Services Administration and sold for scrap, according to one Coast Guard spokesman.
Two members of the Marine board, Capt. Paul Nichiporuk of the Coast Guard Marine Inspection Office, and National Transportation Safety Board representative Ralph Johnson, stood by the cutter in a small launch.
From 500 yards the twin barges looked like an island of steel, dwarfing the vessel, its red and white hull slung in a brace of steel half out of the water.
Coast Guard divers in wet suits could be seen scrambling about the dock against the silhousette of the ship whose front two-thirds seemed unscathed.
To raise the vessel, divers slipped cables beneath the bow and stern and joined the ends to the tops of the cranes, forming a sling under the ship.
Although the salvagers had expected the ship to be raised at a rate of about 15 feet per hour from its 57-foot depth, the vessel broke the surface only two minutes after the cranes were engaged.
Six massive pumps worked to clear the Cuyahoga of water, which filled two-thirds of its interior. Two additional pumps were required earlier in the day when debris from inside the hull clogged the pumps' strainers.
A jet of murky water could be seen shooting from one side of the ship.