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Reef-er madness

The Vandenberg arrives in Key West on its way to becoming an artifical reef. Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

KEY WEST, Fla.  Following an 1,100-mile voyage and more than a decade of planning and acquiring funding resources, the Florida Keys newest artificial reef, the ex-military missile tracking ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg arrived in Key West Wednesday.

The Vandenberg is docked behind the USS Mohawk, a historic Coast Guard ship open as a floating museum, at the East Quay Wall in Truman Annex Harbor.

"We're all pretty excited here in Key West and particularly in view of the fact this is going to be the second largest artificial reef in the world," said Key West City Commissioner Bill Verge, who is serving as a project liaison between the city and various state and federal agencies.

Final preparations to sink the ship are beginning today. Project organizers said the scuttling should take place sometime between May 20 and June 1, about six miles south of Key West in 140 feet of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

That work primarily involves the cutting of hundreds of large holes on the ship's decks and sides to help ensure the vessel sinks in an upright position.

Seventy percent of the $8.6 million project's funding resources and some 75,000 man-hours were required to rid the vessel of contaminants with that work executed in two Norfolk, Va., shipyards.

Pollutants removed include 71 cubic yards of asbestos, 193 tons of materials that contained potentially carcinogenic substances, 46 tons of refuse, 300 pounds of mercury-containing materials and 185 55-gallon drums of paint chips, officials said.

The ship first saw duty as a U.S. Army troop transport named the General Harry Taylor. It became the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg in 1963 and tracked the U.S. space program's launches off Cape Canaveral. It also served in the Pacific monitoring U.S. defense missile test launches and eavesdropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War. Port Canaveral, Fla., was the Vandenberg's last active duty home port beginning in 1976.

The Vandenberg was formally retired in 1983 and was transferred to the James River Naval Reserve Fleet. But, according to Patrick J. Utecht, who managed the ship's electronic systems, a team of six technicians would visit Vandenberg every six months to power up all shipboard electronics and make any necessary repairs. Despite the state of readiness, the ship was never used again and in 1993, was formally struck from the naval register and transferred to the Maritime Administration.

The ship received its most public exposure when cast as a Russian science ship in "Virus," a 1999 motion picture starring Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland.

The project is being funded by Monroe County, the Florida Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development; City of Key West, U.S. Maritime Administration, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys & Key West tourism council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as industry and private donations. Banks that provided loans include First State Bank of the Florida Keys, BB&T and Orion.

"One of the big products that we make here is happy vacations," said Joe Weatherby who conceived the project some 13 years ago. "And we feel that this artificial reef is the world's best product ever produced for scuba diving. People are going to come from all over the world to dive this, but this product also has been designed so we can offer it to glass bottom boat riders, snorkelers or new divers as well as advanced divers, it holds interest for all of them."