As hundreds of veterans solemnly looked on, the Navy blew holes in a retired aircraft carrier and sent it to the bottom of the sea yesterday, creating the world's largest man-made reef.
The hulk of the 888-foot USS Oriskany took 37 minutes to slip beneath the waves, about 41/2 hours faster than predicted, after more than 500 pounds of plastic explosives went off with bright flashes of light and clouds of brown and gray smoke.
Veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars aboard a flotilla of 300 charter boats watched from beyond a safety perimeter as the "Mighty O" went down in 212 feet of water about 24 miles off Pensacola Beach.
Lloyd Quiter of North Collins, N.Y., who served four tours on the ship in Vietnam, played the attention-all-hands signal on his boatswain's pipe and wept.
"I'm a little stunned. It's a little hard to take," he said.
After the explosions, an acrid smell hung in the air near the ship. The carrier went down stern first, the bow lifting up into the air and creating a giant spray of water as it came down. The blue ocean churned a foamy white as the deck – bright orange with rust – slid under. Hundreds of surrounding boats blew their horns in tribute.
The Oriskany became the first ship sunk under a Navy program to dispose of old warships by turning them into diving attractions teeming with fish and other marine life.
Jack Witter of Fort Pierce, who served as an aviation-ordnance operator during the Korean conflict, joined 34 other veterans to watch the Oriskany go down. The group saluted as the ship vanished underwater.
"I felt good about it," Witter said. "I guess there was a little tear in my eye because a good part of my life went down with her, but it was a fitting end for a good ship."
The Oriskany, commissioned in 1950 and named after a Revolutionary War battle, saw duty during the Korean War and was home to John McCain when McCain, a Navy pilot and future senator, served in Vietnam. It was also among the ships used by President Kennedy in a show of force during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It was decommissioned in 1976.
"It was a small, old carrier that fought very valiantly, and I'm very proud to have been a part of the air wing that served with great courage and distinction," McCain told CNN yesterday.
The sinking, which cost $20 million, was delayed for nearly two years by hurricanes and environmental-permit problems. The ship will not be open to recreational divers until Navy divers explore the wreck and check for hazards.