Days of Yore

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10 Years Ago

In February of 1999, news outlets around the world aired footage of a spectacular detonation in a ship grounded on the Oregon coast. But that barely scratched the surface of a horrifyingly interesting story, and since it happened locally, Picofarad feels compelled to give the entire story.

February 4, 1999: It is a dark and stormy night. (Pretty typical for the Oregon coast in February, really.) It's too stormy to fly out a bar pilot at Coos Bay, so the M/V New Carissa drops anchor to wait it out.

February 5: The New Carissa crew discovers that they anchored a little too close in, and the storm has embedded the ship firmly in a beach. An initial survey shows that next to none of its fuel-- "bunker oil"-- has spilled, but it's going to take some time to get the ship loose.

February 9: On second thought, oil is starting to leak as the hull is pounded by relentless coastal storms. The oil is hard to pump in cold temperatures, and seawater is starting to leak in, so a decision is made to burn it off. A tugboat stands by to tow the ship away afterwards.

February 10: Navy explosives experts arrive on the scene and lay charges to ignite the oil. There is a carnival atmosphere among onlookers by now. Some enterprising soul is selling T-shirts depicting the ship aflame. In the evening, the detonation goes off. This is the footage seen around the world. The assembled media starts packing for the trip home.

February 11: It turns out that after all that, none of the oil actually burned. The Navy is not pleased, and swears it's not going to be defeated by a wood-chip carrier. It pulls out every kind of explosive it has on hand. The resulting detonation is even more spectacular than the previous evening's, but sadly is only seen on local TV. This time, they wait for a confirmation-- yes, the oil is burning! Hooray!

February 12: The fire is out again the next morning, but they're pretty sure they've burned the majority of the oil. Efforts continue over the next few days to restart it.

February 16: Okay, more like 10% of the oil has burned. And seawater is now flooding the ship, making it impossible to burn or pump any more. Also the ship is now in two entirely separate pieces.

February 17: New plan: the bow section contains all the oil and looks like it'll still float, so a tugboat will tow it out to sea where it can be sunk. The temperature and pressure of the water at the ocean floor will keep the oil solid.

February 26: The sea is finally calm enough for a salvage tug to go out and be hooked up to the ship via a 14-inch-thick, 1000-meter towline. Much has been said about the wonderfulness of this towline in the intervening days. It was specially designed by scientists in the Netherlands for jobs like this and has been flown in from the Navy in California specifically for this operation.

March 2: After several days of being pulled from the sand inch by inch, two-thirds of the New Carissa breaks free of the beach and heads out to sea. Cheers go up from bystanders, state workers, and TV crews who have spent nearly a month of their lives on this damn thing. Everyone heads home in a celebratory mood.

That evening, another storm blows up and the towline snaps.

March 3: The bow section is found wedged into the beach at Waldport. Some wag points out that this makes the New Carissa the world's longest ship, at 50 miles from stem to stern. A collective sob goes up from everyone else.

March 8: After a few days for another round of attempted pumping, the ship is pulled free again on the repaired towline in the early hours of the morning.

March 11: Tug and ship finally arrive at the designated execution site, where they are met by the destroyer USS David R. Ray. The demolitions experts will get one more go at the ship to get it to start flooding, and the destroyer will add holes as needed with its 5-inch guns.

After firing 70 rounds, and with the target still sitting perfectly happily on the surface, the commander on site orders all cameras switched off, so that the nearest submarine can stake it through the heart with a highly classified torpedo. The New Carissa finally becomes the first ship sunk by the US Navy since World War II (outside of training exercises) at 3:53 pm. This only leaves the minor detail of dismantling the stern section, which, due to various lawsuits and financial issues, will take until the summer of 2008.

March 12: The editorial cartoon in The Oregonian shows the ship hiding below the surface until everyone leaves, then popping up again...

100 Years Ago

Large swaths of Earth were still unexplored. On January 16, 1909, one of Ernest Shackleton's expeditions became the first ever known to reach the magnetic south pole; on April 6, Robert Peary and Matthew Henson were first to the North Pole.

1000 Years Ago

Symeon, abbot of the monastery of St. Mamas, was compelled to resign his post due to creative differences with the patriarch of Constantinople. He retired across the Hellespont to Chrysopolis, where he wrote his memoirs and argude for his views on mystic prayer. Eventually his works found a more receptive audience, and he is now remembered as St. Symeon the New Theologian.

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