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Naval Park revisits long-term solutions as USS The Sullivans remains in crisis

USS The Sullivans. ( Shinerunner/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2018, Buffalo Naval Park officials and marine engineers considered a plan to tow the USS The Sullivans, the decommissioned destroyer now in crisis in Buffalo’s Inner Harbor, across Lake Erie to Erie, Pa., to be docked on land so lasting repairs to the ship’s hull could be completed.

Estimates pinned the project, which would require moving the other two ships in the Naval Park to allow The Sullivans room to exit, at between $5 million and $7 million. Ultimately, Naval Park administration chose to keep The Sullivans in Buffalo and, with BIDCO Marine Group hired for the repair, use two-part epoxy to patch the holes in the World War II-era vessel.

The $1 million cost for the epoxy project was preferred to the dry-docking alternative, recalled Paul J. Marzello Sr., now president and CEO of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, but then the director of development and special projects.

“It was our opinion that (dry-docking) wasn’t a good use of our money at the time with the risks involved,” Marzello said last week. “We didn’t think she would make it” to Erie, Pa. “And we certainly didn’t want to have the USS The Sullivans sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie.”

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Lexia Littlejohn, speaking on Mayor Byron W. Brown’s WUFO radio show on Sunday, said the patches are working and the ship is listing less than it had been.

But in light of the present crisis unfolding on The Sullivans — and the fact that epoxy is a temporary fix — a larger plan to protect the future of the ship has risen in importance. Marzello said last week he’s willing to revisit the more creative solutions rejected in 2018.

“Things have changed over the course of time. We’re going to certainly take a look at all those options again,” he said. “We have more support than we’ve ever had, we’ve created more awareness than we’ve ever had, and with those two things, those options could be very doable.”

Extending the lifespan of 80-year-old decommissioned ships built to last 25 years is no easy feat, but it’s important for Buffalo tourism, veterans, civic pride and history.

“We need a very aggressive plan going forward,” Marzello said.

What is a dry dock? And a cofferdam?

Brian R. Wroblewski, a Buffalo transportation historian, photographer, shipping enthusiast and founder of an engaging 5,800-member Buffalo transportation Facebook group, explained why a more advanced repair strategy like dry-docking or building a cofferdam could preserve The Sullivans.

If the current two-part epoxy patching buys The Sullivans time and the bottom of the hull is the greatest long-term concern, Wroblewski said, the Fletcher-class destroyer could be towed to Donjon Shipbuilding and Repair, a dry-dock site in Erie.

The vessel would dock in an enclosable area, surrounded by land on three sides and initially filled with lake water. Once the ship has entered the dock zone, the area is sealed with a wall and then dewatered using pumps, allowing The Sullivans to rest elevated on blocks for access to its entire hull.

Should The Sullivans’ long-term concern not be on the bottom of the ship but the part of the hull closer to the water line — where wind, waves and Buffalo’s winter can do damage — then a cofferdam could be a solution. This approach would not require towing across Lake Erie, yet its function is similar to a dry dock in that a cofferdam creates an isolated, dry construction site to address an area of concern.

A cofferdam, in the case of repairing a ship, is essentially an adjustable, watertight wall constructed either alongside or entirely around a ship. Like the dry dock, the enclosed area inside the cofferdam wall is dewatered. The bottom of a ship’s hull is not accessible in the cofferdam approach, Wroblewski said.

Regardless of strategy, the out-of-water repair process typically involves welding new steel plates to the old ship, often doubling up to prevent future leaks, Wroblewski said.

Neither approach requires divers, who face underwater limitations that affect sight, movement, efficiency and safety; all work is done out of the water, which allows for more flexible timelines.

The Sullivans’ survival is dear to Wroblewski, who was 4 years old when the ships arrived at the Naval Park. He’d visit with his father, an ex-Marine, regularly. “To me, this is real heart-and-soul type stuff,” Wroblewski said. “It’s always been a part of my life.”

Has a cofferdam worked?

A successful recovery by a leaking World War II-era ship isn’t unprecedented. The Battleship North Carolina, which began fundraising for its $17 million rescue project in 2015, was repaired enough to float on its own in August.

Because it wasn’t feasible to move the 36,600-ton battleship, a cofferdam, reportedly costing $8 million, was constructed around the entire ship to accommodate more advanced repairs, not simple hole-plugging.

“She never moved from her slip,” said Wroblewski, who said cofferdams are a fairly new approach to repairing old ships. “She sat there the whole time in the mud.”

The North Carolina’s website detailed the structure of the cofferdam, which is 50 feet tall, nearly 2,000 feet in perimeter and required 4.6 million pounds of steel. Four slide gate weirs — or dams — were used to control the flow of water into the cofferdam.

But the North Carolina isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison to The Sullivans, which weighs about 2,000 tons. Battleships, Wroblewski said, boast much thicker hulls than the razor-thin steel plates that kept destroyers like The Sullivans lightweight in battle and earned them the “tin can” nickname.

The level of The Sullivans’ hull corrosion is likely far worse and more spread out simply due to its thinness and Buffalo’s more extreme seasons, the local historian said.

Potential snags

The cost of dry-docking The Sullivans, or even creating a permanent or temporary cofferdam, remains prohibitive and the biggest hurdle, said Marzello, who stressed the Naval Park’s designation as a nonprofit.

Though encouraged by the $1 million raised in 10 months to pay for BIDCO’s epoxy repair, Marzello still questioned the public response to a significantly higher ask.

“Is it something the community is going to feel just as compelled if it’s $20 million as they are to raise five (million), as they are to raise one (million)?” he asked. “Obviously the community felt it was more than a bargain to spend a million dollars to fix this ship.”

The dry-docking estimate of $5 million to $7 million from 2018 is likely outdated today. “I have to believe it’s considerably more,” Marzello said.

The Buffalo Naval Park has closed for safety reasons during the emergency situation, and if the closure extends deep into the summer, the park may miss out on most of its gate revenue. The tourist attraction has traditionally closed for December through March, but normally would be open by now. The short season will make the nonprofit even more reliant on outside funding, which Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer appealed for last week, or large donations like those from West Herr Automotive and developer Douglas Jemal in the last fundraising campaign.

Should the Naval Park propose a cofferdam project like the Battleship North Carolina, the expense could be less than the $17 million spent there. The battleship is significantly bigger than The Sullivans, and a partial cofferdam could further reduce the cost. A mitigating factor, however, is that the USS Little Rock and USS Croaker submarine may need to be moved to create room for the cofferdam, as the park’s confines are tight.

Big decisions ahead

T&T Salvage, the U.S. Coast Guard, BIDCO Marine Group, the state DEC and the Naval Park are all focused on refloating the USS The Sullivans, the immediate priority after 12 days of listing. Clinton Williams, general manager of T&T, said his team has been tasked with immediate recovery tasks like executing a plan to enter the ship.

“We’ll get it refloated, we’ll make the patches, but the long-term is above our decisions,” Williams said.

That leaves Marzello and the Naval Park’s board of directors to help manage the present crisis of the Sullivans and lay out a vision — including the future of the entire park.

“We have a number of options on the table in terms of how are we going to expand this space, stay here, take on another location — a lot of things are on the table, but the priority right now is to right the ship,” Marzello said.

Epoxy should be effective for 20-25 years, Marzello said, but he wants the park — and its prized ships — to be around much longer.

“We want to save this ship for many generations to come, not just for our kids, but for our grandkids.”

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