KEY LARGO (CBSMiami/FKNB) - Divers descended onto a storied former Naval ship turned artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on Sunday to honor the upcoming 20th anniversary of the iconic vessel's sinking May 17, 2002.
A commemorative plaque was affixed to the 510-foot-long Spiegel Grove, sponsored by a group of Navy veterans who served on the former Landing Ship Dock, that recognized the multimillion-dollar project's supporters as well as military personnel who served on the ship commissioned in 1956.
Decommissioned in 1989, Spiegel Grove sat in a "mothball fleet" in Virginia's James River before being acquired by Monroe County in June 2001, getting an intense cleansing in Virginia and finally being towed to Key Largo in May 2002, before its planned scuttling, ultimately to create the backbone of a new reef ecosystem 6 miles offshore.
The ship received international notoriety when it sank prematurely May 17, 2002, and landed with its upside-down bow protruding above the ocean's surface. A massive remediation effort began, resulting in the Spiegel Grove being fully sunk on its starboard side June 10, 2002.
Three years later, strong currents and waves generated from Hurricane Dennis when it was east of Cuba pushed the ship into the intended upright position.
"Ultimately, the Spiegel Grove is a story that Hollywood would never have been able to script in a million years," said Rob Bleser, a Key Largo dive operator and the sink project manager of the vessel that rests on the ocean bottom 130 feet below the surface.
"There was a couple of engineers that put a plan together, put the sinking plan together, and the intention was to partially sink it as designed, and then at the very last minute to flood those remaining compartments so the ship would go down effectively, straight down," Bleser added.
The failure of the ship to sink as planned left many disappointed as well as urgent navigational issues.
"The necessity was strong, of course, because we needed to have it not as a hazard to navigation but as an artificial reef on the bottom itself," said Bleser, who said the Key Largo community responded to ensure the ship would eventually sink fully.
"We had multiple volunteers, I think we had between 60 and 70 volunteers, that assisted throughout the process of putting the ship on the bottom," he added.
The ship opened to recreational diving June 26, 2002.
In July 2005, the sight that Bleser saw when he dove the Spiegel Grove several days after Hurricane Dennis grazed the Keys was nearly unbelievable.
"I was shocked and amazed and somewhat emotional when I got down to it and I could see that indeed the ship was upright," said Bleser.
With its remarkable size and history, the Spiegel Grove remains the world's third-largest ship ever intentionally sunk to become an artificial reef. One of the Florida Keys' most popular dive sites, it attracts thousands of wreck-certified divers each year.
South Carolina resident Karen Berrios trained specifically as an advanced diver to experience the former military vessel on which both her late father, William Py, and uncle, Joseph Py, served during the 1980s Cold War era.
"So, when I went down, I was just trying to imagine myself kinda in my dad's footsteps looking around, did he step here at one point of time, just like I am right today," recalled Berrios, who helped install Sunday's plaque that bears her family members' names.
Dan Dawson, who owns Horizon Divers in Key Largo and runs daily dive trips to the Spiegel Grove, said the military ship offers a glimpse into history, attracting divers who have served on it as well as their kids and grandkids.
"This wreck itself brings many, many divers from all over the world just to see what we have here in Key Largo," said Dawson.
Other anniversary events include a multimedia presentation Tuesday, May 17, on the shipwreck's journey from the U.S. Navy's mothball fleet to the ocean bottom. Taking place at Key Largo's Murray Nelson Cultural Center, the 7 p.m. event is free and open to the public.
An online contest to award a winner a three-night stay in the Keys and diving on the famous Key Largo shipwreck launches May 17 at 9 a.m. Details can be found HERE.
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