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Once a symbol of U.S. pride, the Big U appears doomed S.S. United States awaits final voyage

NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- When the S.S. United States smashed the record for crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage in July 1952, the ship became an object of great national pride, further evidence to a confident people that this was the American century.

There is little about the ship to be proud of these days. Tied up alongside an unused coal pier, just a short distance from the shipyard where it was built, the vessel lies forlornly. Its distinctive red-white-and-blue stacks are faded and streaked; its decks are fouled by pigeons and sea gulls; its cabins, restaurants and lounges are stripped of everything of value. The black paint of the hull has peeled away in long, rusty lines that stream down from the white block letters of its name on the bow.

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Idled for more than 21 years -- two years longer than it operated across the Atlantic -- the ship stands as an affront to those who remember it in its heyday. Commodore Leroy J. Alexanderson, the man who commanded it for 14 years, lives in nearby Hampton, but he finds it too painful to visit.

"The ship's a mess," he lamented. "I don't go aboard her. . . . There's no reason for me to go aboard. I don't want to see her the way she is now."

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He would like to see the ship taken to sea and scuttled to spare it any further humiliation. "I'd rather have them take her out to sea with all the flags flying and let her go," he said, but he acknowledged that pollution rules mean the ship won't meet such a dignified end.

Instead, it might be sold at auction and towed to an Asian shipyard for scrapping.

When the ship was purchased a decade ago by Richard H. Hadley, a Seattle real estate developer, hopes soared that it would be converted to a cruise ship and taken to sea again.

But one scheme after another has fallen through until there seems little chance the S.S. United States will ever sail as a cruise ship. The conversion would cost at least $200 million, or as much as it would cost to build a brand new ship custom-designed for the cruise business. To compete, the S.S. United States would have to depend on its undisputed reputation as one of history's greatest ships.

"Two hundred million: That's a lot of money to pay for history," said Commodore Alexanderson, who expects the ship to be scrapped. "Maybe I'm wrong; I hope I am."

When he spoke, time had just about run out on the ship. Seized by federal marshals Oct. 12 for non-payment of rent on its berth, the ship was scheduled to be sold at public auction tomorrow, where the most serious bidders were expected to be scrappers.

But late Thursday the legal owner of the ship, a company controlled by Mr. Hadley, declared bankruptcy in Seattle. Under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, the company, United States Cruises Inc., will be afforded protection from its creditors while it reorganizes. That move prompted a federal judge in Norfolk on Friday to call off the auction until he decides which court should have jurisdiction over the ship. That hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Suddenly, the Big U -- as the ship is known to its fans -- had a reprieve. That could give ship preservationists time to organize efforts to save it. And the ship does have many fans, all over the world.

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Last Monday night, three young men were prowling around the pier next to the ship. Its dark hull was barely visible, silhouetted against the sky on a moonless night.

Hanno Buss, 26, a student in Hamburg, Germany, said he and his two friends decided to come to the United States to see the ship when they heard it was about to be scrapped. Their plane had just landed in Norfolk, and they had come straight from the airport to see the ship.

The next morning the three were back, taking pictures and videotaping it. One of the three, Elmar Hess, 25, an art student, said the ship made a big impression on him in his youth when his hobby was making radio-controlled models of ships.

"It was a status symbol for the United States. Now look at it," he said.

Despite its condition, the ship still has the ability to move people who know its history. "It's the mystique of the ship," said Mr. Buss, a student of naval architecture. "It's very difficult to explain how you feel."

These young Germans were only 3 or 4 years old when the S.S. United States last sailed, but many older Baltimoreans still have fond memories of their voyages to Europe.

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For more than a decade after its launching in 1952, the ship carried the rich and the famous. But it also carried ordinary people for whom the ship remained the standard means of transportation across the Atlantic.

John T. Menzies Jr., a retired Baltimore businessman, went with his father to Europe on the ship in the late 1950s. He recalls wearing a tuxedo to formal dinners in the ship's first-class dining room. "Except for the Queen Mary," he said, "this was overall the best boat."

The S.S. United States was not as luxurious as many of the other ships crossing the Atlantic. That's because it was not a pure luxury liner.

Other glamorous ships, including the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, had been pressed into service as troop ships when World War II broke out. And the United States was, in essence, a military vessel thinly disguised as a civilian. Because it was built so that it could be rapidly converted to a troop ship, the government paid more than half its original cost of almost $80 million.

That meant it had a minimum of fancy furnishings to be ripped out in the event of war. In addition, the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs, the foremost naval architect of his day, was a fanatic about fires. He banned almost any material that could burn. The only wooden things aboard were the chopping block and the piano, and (so the story goes) Mr. Gibbs tried unsuccessfully to get Steinway to make one from aluminum.

He also did all he could to eliminate weight that would slow the ship. That eliminated the kind of heavy furniture that graced more luxurious passenger ships.

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That insistence on non-combustible, lightweight material produced an austere decor. It also meant the ship was loaded with asbestos -- in the doors, walls, ceilings and floors.

"There's more asbestos than any of us care to admit," said John H. DeVenny, who is looking after the ship for the U.S. Marshal's Service.

A troop ship needs to be fast to outrun submarines, and Mr. Gibbs made the United States much faster than any passenger ship needed to be.

With two engine rooms and eight boilers generating steam to turn the four propellers, the United States had the power of a warship. In fact, the engines were essentially the same as those installed in the nation's first super aircraft carriers.

In setting a trans-Atlantic record of three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, the United States slashed more than 10 hours off the Queen Mary's record. And it did it without breaking a sweat.

The United States averaged 35.6 knots (over 40 mph) on the crossing. In sea trials held before the ship went into passenger service, it recorded a top speed of over 38 knots (over 42 mph) in rough seas and strong winds. For many years that figure was a closely guarded secret, as was the shape of the hull below the waterline.

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The very qualities that set the United States apart from lesser vessels may now doom it to the scrap heap. Modern cruise ships are wide-bottomed floating hotels designed to plod along at moderate speeds in calm waters. Their smaller engines are economical to operate, and their wide U-shaped hulls are stable. Such ships can carry many decks stacked high above the water without danger of capsizing.

The result is much more room for spacious cabins, pools, casinos and other hallmarks of luxury cruise ships. More space on these ships means more activities for the passengers and more profits for the owners. That's a combination the S.S. United States can never duplicate.

John W. Boylston, a naval architect who lives in Solomons, worked for Mr. Hadley on the plan to convert the liner to a cruise ship. He has concluded that economics make the scheme impractical. For $200 million -- a conservative estimate of the cost of rebuilding -- a cruise-ship operator could order a new vessel that would be much better suited to the cruise trade.

Mr. Boylston suspects that the United States might be in better shape than it looks. The hull seems sound, and the engine rooms have been kept dehumidified to prevent corrosion. But the condition of the hull and engines might not matter. The day it came out of the shipyard, its design made it ill-suited to today's cruise market. The engines are too big and consume too much fuel. The entire asbestos-ridden interior would have to be ripped out and replaced. And the V-shaped hull that allowed the ship to set speed records would limit the interior space and the number of decks that could be safely added.

"You can only pile so much on top of it. It's like a canoe," Mr. Boylston said.

Mr. Hadley had always hoped that the ship's history would draw customers, despite the other deficiencies, but Mr. Boylston has come to doubt that. "I don't think the cruise market is that sentimental," Mr. Boylston said.

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And all that will matter might be its scrap value of $5 million to $6 million. "I wish I could tell you something else," Mr. Boylston said. "I just see no interest from anyone to save the damn thing."

Beyond the possible reprieve from the courts, there is one other ray of hope. Legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, has been introduced in Congress to prohibit the sale of the ship to foreigners and to provide space for the ship in the government's mothball fleet.

The bill acknowledges that the ship has little potential as a passenger vessel, but it would buy time for groups interested in preserving it as a museum. The hope is that they can come up with the necessary funds to convert it.

It seems like a thin hope.

CSX Transportation Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla., owns the pier where the ship is tied up. It wants the rent paid and the ship moved. It was CSX that sued to have the ship seized and sold at auction.

A spokesman for the company says it does not want any harm to come to the ship; it simply wants its pier back.

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Mr. Hadley, who did not return phone calls last week, apparently has not given up his efforts to retain control of the ship and has been searching for a new berth. Bethlehem Steel Corp. confirmed that the company had been asked about three weeks ago if it would let the ship be berthed at the Sparrows Point shipyard in Baltimore. The company said it declined to lease a berth.

That seems to leave the ship's fate in the hands of the courts. "A stay of execution, some folks will call it," said CSX Transportation spokesman Lynn Johnson.

A stay but not a pardon. "The British would save this thing somehow by collecting pennies from schoolchildren," said Mr. Boylston. "We lose a little of ourselves when something like this goes. I'd do anything to keep it around."


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