Dismantling ships helps rebuild lives

May 16, 2011 8:37:31 PM PDT
Two more ships are now gone from the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, more commonly known as the "Mothball Fleet." On Monday, the ships were towed to San Francisco, where they'll be cleaned of marine growth and loose exterior paint. They will eventually head to Texas, where they will be recycled. The ships are the 20th and 21st to be removed in the past two years as part of an effort to clean up and improve the waters of Suisun Bay.

One of those mothballed ships is already being dismantled on Mare Island in Vallejo. Recently, ABC7 went there to find out just what's involved in tearing a giant ship apart and discovered the project is helping to rebuild lives and hope.

In Vallejo, the ship is a curiosity, a doomed old cargo ship named the "Solon Turman". It is rusty, peeling, and as people watch, is disappearing piece by piece -- and that makes it the first of its kind around the shipyard.

"We were ship builders, not ship wreckers," said one Vallejo native.

When the U.S. Navy abandoned Mare Island in 1996, it left behind an empty shell and 6,000 people lost their jobs. The city of Vallejo would go bankrupt. It was one indignity after another.

"Well, things went downhill, you know? Lot of hard times when you aren't got money," said Tony Avila.

Avila lived it as much as anyone. His father was one of the men laid off from the base. Its closure started a personal skid that eventually led Avila to drugs, alcohol, and prison. He went so long without a job that he's still paying off a car repair by working for a mechanic after hours. So when the Solon Turman arrived for dismantling, Avila saw it as a way to support his wife, and a daughter who had lost faith in him.

"She had never seen me be so persistent. I stood at Mare Island for three months, Monday through Friday, every single day. And they would tell me, 'No, we're not hiring. No, we're not hiring.' And I wouldn't hear of it. I kept standing there and I would just tell them, 'Well, sir if you need my help, I'm here. I'm here in case you need me. I'm here. I just want a chance,'" said Avila.

Avila finally did get a break because he had training as a welder and Jay Anast, who runs the recycling operation, wanted to hire locals from Vallejo.

"Well it's a bit of pressure. Everybody expects us to have 25,000 people and whistles blowing four times a day. We're just not that big, but we're a small component in the revitalization in this area," said Anast from Allied Defense Recycling.

It's a small component devouring a 690-foot ship with one-inch thick steel, one chunk at a time. In theory, you would think it would be quite straight forward, just a matter of cutting, lifting, placing, and eventually disposing. But, when each piece weighs as much as 40,000 pounds, you know it gets complicated.

Begin with stuff like the asbestos, the PBC's, the lead-based paint. When a burner like Avila torches that steel, the air fills with toxins. This may be a dream job, but it is hard work and it is dangerous.

"You get burned sometimes, you get hot, you're swearing, and it's constant," said Avila.

The removal process happens methodically, but in very large scale from top to bottom. Bill McNeal pre-calculates the weight of every piece.

"Any one of us that's been doing this a long time, can come within 10 percent by just looking at a piece," said McNeal.

Imagine all those tons balanced so perfectly that a 200-pound man can push them around with either hand.

With every stage, what's left of the Solon Turman gets smaller and smaller. She will yield 9,000 tons of mostly steel, when finally chewed up. What began as a ship, finishes as scrap.

In a once busy place like Mare Island, these are a far cry from the glory days when ships arrived in pieces?and left intact. Regardless, 10 miles away, in Suisun Bay, the Mothball Fleet has 50 others like the Solon Turman and as Avila knows all too well pieces can make a man and a city whole again.

When asked what his dad would say, Avila said, "Oh, my dad...He would just say, 'I'm proud of you, son.'"


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