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A Floating Monument To 9/11

March 22, 2007
Machinists play role in building the USS New York.

When most machinists get a work order to turn a shaft, they are dealing with a piece of metal a few inches in diameter and maybe two or three feet long. Mike Diaz, inside machinist at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems' Avondale shipyard in New Orleans, La., (, however, turns shafts that are at least 18 in. in diameter and up to 54-ft long. The shafts Diaz turns also must be held to within 0.002 in. and be perfectly balanced when spinning at 200 rpm.

Holding such tolerances is old hat to Diaz, but last year when he got an order to make 18 shaft sections for a new ship, he knew that the standard "good enough" was not going to sail. Those 18 shafts would drive the USS New York (LPD 21), an amphibious transport ship that the Avondale shipyard was to build for the U.S. Navy.

The LPD 21 has already become a living, fighting monument to the heroes and victims who lost their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What makes the USS New York special is not its name, nor its motto: "Never Forget."

What does make it special is its bow stem, the forward-most part of the ship that breaks through the water to make way for the rest of the vessel. The ship's bow stem was forged from an I-beam, the last piece of steel salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. That I-beam was sent to AmeriCast Technologies' Amite Foundry and Machine in Amite, La., ( where it was melted and recast into the USS New York's 7.5-metric ton (16,535-lb.) bow stem.

"When that steel came in and I laid my hands on a piece of it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. There was something present in the air," Junior Chavers, plant operations manager at Amite Foundry and Machine, said. After casting, the bow stem was shipped to the Avondale shipyard.

"When that steel bow stem got here everyone wanted to touch it," said Michael Norman, crane department superintendent at the Avondale yard, said. "Everyone was drawn to it. You can't explain what you are feeling, and just about everyone in this shipyard lined up to look at it and were drawn to touch it like it was some kind of magnet. It makes this ship different from every other one."

"A lot of our people saw the details about 9/11 on TV but there didn't seem to be anything we could do about it," said "Big" Randy Edwards, assistant to the ship superintendent. "Then we found out that the metal was going to be in this ship, and it touched a lot of people. It gave us a way to show support for what those folks up in New York suffered. Everyone working on this ship thinks about it every day. The ship is something special. Nobody complains about working in the heat or the rain like they usually do. I think everyone is trying to do the best job they can on this ship."

Tony Quaglino has been working at the shipyard for 41 years and was going to retire until he heard about the New York. "It's important to me and the rest of these guys to be a part of this ship. What happened to us with (Hurricane) Katrina added to the emphasis. It hit home for us because with our trials and tribulations after Katrina we can identify on a personal level with their (New York's) loss even more," Quaglino said.

"To me, that bow stem has two meanings: It's an obvious symbol of this nation's ongoing efforts to combat the global war on terror, and it is also a memorial of reverence to the folks that died on 9/11. This will be my last ship, and I feel honored I got to work on it."

The shipyard is on schedule with the LPD 21 even though it is working with less than 80 percent of its normal crew because many workers have not yet returned after the Katrina evacuation. "Some of the people who moved away because of the hurricane have found machining jobs that pay better," Nikola "Nick" Betanof, machine shop superintendent, said.

"The oil industry in Texas is paying big bucks compared with the shipyard. We've tried to find people to come to work for a second shift, but it's hard. Counting supervision, we have 25 people working one shift. That is only about 75 percent of our normal staffing. We're staying on or ahead of schedule, but we have to hustle to do it. We could use more machinists here and are in a hiring mode," Betanof said, adding that the shipyard's machine shop was producing parts only two weeks after Hurricane Katrina even though more than 70 percent of its people had lost their homes in the flooding.

In addition to making shafts, the inside machine shop produces rudder stocks, rudder shafts, manhole covers, pad eyes, special bolts, exhaust flanges and other non-standard, low-volume parts. Some of its equipment is relatively new, such as a 2-year-old longbed (54-ft) lathe. Other pieces of equipment are much older. On some equipment, the shipyard machinists can automatically hold 25-µ tolerances, while other machines have to be adjusted by hand to stay within tolerance. This is not a job for what the crew at the shipyard calls "pushbutton machinists," and with the exception of an apprentice, the average machinist at the shipyard has more than 20 years experience.

Even using old equipment, the Avondale shipyard's inside machine shop was rated the most productive zone in the entire yard for the last quarter of 2006. The machinists there said that the rating is due at least in part to the inspiration they got from working on parts for the USS New York.

"It seemed like we were holding the tightest tolerances possible on everything we made for that ship," Betanof said. It's hard to forget the image of those enormous shafts being machined and even harder to forget what the final shaft assemblies are like. Imagine a shaft 300-ft long made up of six 50-ft sections bolted together. When the ship's engine turns over, the end of the shaft at the engine can rotate as much as two full turns before the propeller attached to its other end begins to turn. That is an image that Mike Diaz enjoys. He is the guy that made those shafts, and for the USS New York he made them damned well.

Specifications for the USS New York

Length: 684 ft.

Beam (width): 105 ft.

Displacement: Approximately 24,900 long tons full load

Speed: In excess of 22 knots

Propulsion: Four sequentially turbocharged marine Colt-Pielstick diesels, two shafts, 41,600 shaft horsepower

Crew: Ship's company: 360, Landing force up to 800.

Target: Terrorists and other enemies of the United States

A Monumental Ship

The keel of the USS New York (LPD 21) was laid in September, 2004. It is the fifth ship of its class (the first ship and lead ship of the class is named USS San Antonio), and the class is going to replace four classes of older amphibious ships. The bow stem of the LPD 21 was welded in place last August. The ship will be launched in Fall, 2007, and will be commissioned at special ceremonies in New York City in 2008. Other ships in the class include the USS New Orleans, USS Mesa Verde and the USS Green Bay.

The USS New Orleans is only the second Navy ship built in the city it is named after. For that reason it probably would have been the most special ship the men and women of the Avondale yard ever worked on, but the USS New York and the powerful message its bow stem sends has eclipsed it.

More than 200,000 tons of steel were salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Most of that steel was sold as scrap around the world for regular steel mill and casting production.

For more information about the USS New York and other San Antonio class ships, go to

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