Save Our Ship: Passionate Preservationists Fight for a National Treasure

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It would take the record going the other way, too -- one the ship amazingly still holds. And yet, even as SS United States is capturing records and imaginations, the skies above it are now ominously filled with a new kind of ship, quite literally blowing the "national flagship" out of the water.

We make our way up the darkened tourist class stairwell on our way to the bridge. I am taking my time, mentally cataloging the plastic fencing and the spray-painted warnings on the bulkheads, knowing that one wrong step could send me five decks below into a cargo hold.

As we make our way higher, the daylight grows brighter. A few more stairs, and I am standing where Manning would have. Holes and mangled wiring litter the sole where controls once stood.

But the sense of absolute power that staring out over the ship's immense bow confers is undeniable. Sea gulls circle overhead and Center City Philadelphia looks insignificant through the windows.

The only functioning gauge left on the bridge, a bubble level installed by an anxious insurer in recent years, confirms the strength of the ship's engineering. After decades of neglect, SS United States still refuses to list -- the level reads exactly 0.

A 1969 labor dispute was the last straw for the ship's frustrated owners, already watching the age of jet travel shred their profits. They abruptly pulled SS United States from service.

Since then, it has passed to a variety of well-intentioned, but ill-financed speculators, as countless plans for the ship's resurrection have been conceived, and then shelved just as fast.

The ship's fittings were pawned to pay creditors. One group of owners had it towed to Turkey and Ukraine to undo Gibbs' famous obsession with fireproofing, and clear the ship of its extensive asbestos. All of the ship's historically important interior appointments were destroyed in the process.

In 1996, SS United States was towed to its present location in South Philadelphia, tied up and left. Before extensive security measures were placed around the ship, it was a sadistic South Philly pastime to shoot out its portholes.

Meanwhile, fiercely passionate enthusiasts gathered to fight for the future of the ship, most with deep personal connections to it-- Gibbs, the granddaughter of the architect; Marine Capt. Dan McSweeney, a first-generation American whose father came to this country to work aboard the ship as a steward, to name just two.

By 1999, they achieved the mostly symbolic goal of getting the ship added to the National Register of Historic Places. They installed informational signage outside the ship's berth five years later which was quickly chewed up by the notoriously rough neighborhood.

The next step for the group, now known as the SS United States Conservancy, was to produce a documentary on the ship "Lady in Waiting." It debuts today aboard the ship SS United States took the Blue Riband from, RMS Queen Mary, and will air on PBS stations nationwide starting this month. But to gain access to this grand piece of Americana for filming, they suddenly needed the permission of Asian-parented Norwegian Cruise Line.

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