ABOARD M/V DELAWARE ——It took shipyard workers 38 months to build the Arthur W. Radford, but only four hours Wednesday for a marine salvage crew to send it to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
With little of the drama depicted in maritime disaster movies, the 563-foot former Navy destroyer settled low as seawater poured into its depths and then disappeared stern-first off the coast of Maryland to create the East Coast's largest artificial reef. The reef, called Del-Jersey-Land for the three states involved in the project, is roughly 28 miles northeast of Ocean City Inlet and about equidistant from Indian River Inlet andCape May.
Tourism and natural resources officials for Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland believe the Radford will attract deep-sea fishing charters and divers eager to explore its nooks and crannies.
"It's going to be a huge economic boost for Ocean City," said Erik Zlokovitz, artificial reef coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It is expected to attract bluefish, sea bass, weakfish, sharks and tuna, and that will attract our charter fleet."
Already, a recreational diving charter in Ocean City is signing up customers to take part in "an exciting addition to the local and national dive industry."
In early afternoon, as workers with blowtorches cut the final holes in the hull, about a dozen pleasure boats bobbed nearby while former Radford crew members took photos and swapped stories aboard a ferryboat. And then everyone waited. And waited some more.
"She'll go when she's good and ready, and not a moment sooner," said Scott Horne of Portsmouth, Va., who was a petty officer on the Radford's final mission and during its decommissioning eight years ago.
About three hours after the salvage crew opened the sea cocks, the Radford began listing slightly to port. Another hour passed before the ship showed signs of surrendering to the sea. At 3:41 p.m., water washed over the stern and about a minute later, the Radford was gone, with geysers of white spray and a blue-green caldron marking the spot.
The water churned for several minutes as spectators applauded, a few grown men wiped away tears and some former crew members fired up fat cigars.
"The ship and its crew are like a family," said Horne, his voice thick with emotion. "I'm happy that she'll be here for 100 years and maybe someday my kids and grandkids will come here to fish and say, 'This is where granddad's ship is.' "
Over the next several days, divers are expected to check on the vessel, which came to rest in about 135 feet of water.
"I was convinced that she was going to go down on her side, but everything ended up right in the end," said a jubilant Jeff Tinsman, Delaware's reef coordinator and point man on the $945,000 project. "I hope this is the first step in other tri-state reef projects."
The Radford, with a crew of more than 300, patrolled the Atlantic and Mediterranean and was deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom. It was named for the first naval officer to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Born in Chicago and a 1916 graduate of the Naval Academy, Radford was twice on the cover of Time magazine, in 1950 and 1957.
After decommissioning and mothballing the Radford in Philadelphia, the Navy decided to make it available to artificial reef programs. Delaware and New Jersey officials jumped at the opportunity, began the 21/2-year application process and enlisted Maryland's support. The Navy awarded the Radford to the three states in June 2010.
"None of us could do it without the other ones. It requires a budget beyond any one of us," Tinsman said.
But not everyone approves. The Seattle-based environmental group Basel Action Network opposes the reefing of retired vessels, believing it would be more environmentally sound and cost effective to recycle the components. It is attempting to persuade the Navy to discontinue its reefing program.
Tinsman said it took American Marine Corp. 14 months to remove all salvageable and toxic materials and have the ship pass inspection by federal environmental and maritime safety officials. The Radford was stripped of its superstructure and large horizontal and vertical shafts were cut below decks to help it sink and give divers safe passage.
Al Baughman of Frederick, who was a crew member during the Radford's first mission in 1977, said he was pleased to see his first and only ship getting a new life.
"There were 30 destroyers in this class and there's only two left, and the Radford is one," Baughman said. "The others were used for target practice. It's good to see that she'll be used to give fishermen and divers new opportunities. It's an honorable ending and a satisfying beginning."