Forrestal's last battle may be for final berth Groups want to move ship to Inner Harbor, Tampa, other cities

August 18, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

Decommissioned five years ago, the Forrestal -- the nation's first aircraft "supercarrier" -- is set to become the spoils of a minor civil war.

In the north, Bel Air resident Frank J. Eurice, a Forrestal veteran, is mustering the support of high-ranking, wealthy friends to berth the 1,039-foot aircraft carrier outside the Inner Harbor -- promising $1 million annually in tourist revenue.

In the south, a Tampa, Fla., engineer -- and Baltimore native -- is lobbying residents to move the ship there, where officials want it to anchor their harbor tourist-center development and compete for visitors drawn to nearby Orlando.

After years of preparation, the two sides plan to submit applications to the Navy's Ship Donation Program within the next two months. Two other contenders, groups from Bensalem, Pa., and Virginia Beach, Va., are considering trying to land the ship, but don't know when they will submit applications. The program also has received calls from Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware.

Those vying for the ship predict it will make money. The Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier donated to Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1991, generates about $10 million annually for the community as a tourist attraction, said the ship's executive director, F. W. "Rocco" Montesano.

Patricia K. Dolan, deputy director of public affairs for Naval Sea Systems Command, said no one has submitted an application for the Forrestal, and the ship remains on hold with eight other ships. If a ship is not donated, Dolan said, it will eventually be scrapped. The program has saved 45 ships since its first donation of the vessel Texas in 1948 to La Porte, Texas.

Early next month, the Forrestal will move to the Naval Education and Training Center in Newport, R.I., from the Navy Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia, which is being closed. The ship has been there since it was decommissioned Sept. 30, 1993.

25 stories

Wherever the Forrestal docks, it will make a big splash. When it was commissioned in 1955, it was the largest of its kind. According to the USS Forrestal Association -- which represents 1,400 of the ship's estimated 60,000 veterans -- if the ship stood on end, it would reach the Empire State Building's 80th floor. From keel to mast, it looms 25 stories. The flight deck covers 4 acres and is 252 feet wide at its widest. It can carry 100 planes and 5,000 crew members.

Its history might be just as impressive. The Forrestal has been to the Mediterranean Sea, the Arctic Circle and the Persian Gulf among its 21 deployments in 38 years of service.

It made the history books July 29, 1967. The carrier was in the Gulf of Tonkin and its jets were preparing to launch air strikes on North Vietnam. At 10: 52 a.m., a minor electrical malfunction triggered a series of ordnance explosions that engulfed the ship in flames -- and killed 134 crewmen.

Bel Air's Eurice, a petty officer aboard the Forrestal in 1967, remembers looking at the flight deck and seeing "a sheet of fire and smoke with pieces of confetti that used to be an airplane." He said he was one of the crewmen who battled the flames.

"We almost lost her once," he said. "We saved her that day, and we'll save her again."

The 51-year-old is directing the effort to bring the Forrestal to a site near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where it could serve as a museum, banquet or wedding facility, classroom, campsite for Scouts or even a fishing pier.

Eurice, who sets up assisted-living facilities for a living, said he would meet soon with members of his nonprofit USS Forrestal Museum Inc. and other groups to discuss a feasibility study and financial backing.

After five years of planning, he said, he will be ready to send the Navy an application for the ship within 60 days. He said he will have more than the minimum $8 million in private funds needed (( to move the Forrestal here. He also has the backing of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has agreed to raise funds for the project.

"I think it would be a major tourist attraction and possibly a destination," Schaefer said. "It has to be done right, though."

Working with the city

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the city was working with Eurice's group to explore sites but would not commit to the project unless the group proves it can operate the ship without city funds, and can find a site where it would be on par with its surroundings. If it works, he said, it could draw people to the city for military reunions and conventions.

Charles C. Graves III, director of the city's Department of Planning, said he was concerned about traffic and other ways the ship would affect the harbor area and said the project would need the approval of several government agencies.

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