American aircraft carrier awaits `death’ at Gujarat yard
By Tushar Bhatt
SOSIYA-ALANG (BHAVNAGAR dist)
May 17 1995.
The USS Bennington, billed as the first aircraft carrier to have been sold for demolition as scrap outside the United States, awaits its fate at the Sosiya extension of the Alang shipbreaking yard.
The ship ``was a full-scale military establishment and a virtually unsinkable one at that,’’ said Mr Hemant Sanghvi, whose company has bought it to salvage its recyclable parts and metals.
The ship, which used to house 3,161 men and officers, arrived here some weeks ago. When in service, it had several air-conditioned storeys, used to stable more than 60 aircraft and boasted two massive runways on top.
Three lines of huge chains linked the 31,200 LDT Bennington to the land. The chains are so large that a man could easily, if he had the guts, walk up from the ground level to the ship level. Motor boats and barges bobbing around on the choppy waters of the Gulf of Cambay looked like tiny bees buzzing around an elephant.
By all accounts, the Bennington was a formidable warship. Designed in the closing days of World War II, it was converted into an attack aircraft carrier. Today, shorn of its military grandeur, its guns, its fighters and bombers, its admirals and ranks, it still presents a daunting spectacle. The ladder hugging its wall is 90 degrees steep and entails a climb of more than 70 feet from the water line.
Only on deck does a visitor realise the massiveness of the vessel. The twin runways stretch to almost 900 feet. The vessel had already been demilitarized by the US Navy to prevent it from being refitted as a fighting ship. With whole sections of the runway cut, the metal has caved into the holds below. The control rooms with panels, equipment, teletype machines, decoders and cables, show all the signs of planned destruction. The demolition crews of the US Navy have been very particular, leaving stickers dating the job done and appending the signature of the head of the demilitarising teams.
The ship has no windows in any of its accomodation or technical sections. ``Even after so many days, it has still not been possible for us to go through the entire ship,’’ said Mr Sanghvi. ``For one thing, it requires lighting, and for another, one needs a thorough knowledge of its design. One or two of my colleagues were lost and we had a hard time finding them. So many areas look alike in the darkness.’’
What does Mr Sanghavi’s company hope to gain? A ship can yield thousands of different types of goods and parts, the most valueable being the ferrous and non-ferrous metals, he explained. A big ship like this is almost like a floating township, with everything from a pin to a complete workshop, with storage tanks, turbos and generators on board.
More than anything else, a ship yields a lot of scrap for steel rerolling mills. Mr VP Shah, vice-chairman of the Gujarat Maritime Board, a state government undertaking that runs the yard as well as intermediate and minor ports in the state, said that Alang yielded 21.73 lakh tonnes of scrap in 1994-95. The steel that could be recycled by a rerolling mill would be comparable to a major steel plant’s annual output, he added.
Since it was set up in 1983, the yard has done very well and will remain in the forefront of shipbreaking activity till at least 2005, according to Mr Shah.
Mr Sanghvi’s unit, set up some time ago, is also an indicator of a qualitative change occurring at Alang. Till recently, shipbreaking was essentially a kabadi (small time scrap) business. One needed will to work with scrap, ability to line up money to buy vessels abroad for scrapping and bring them over for a labour-intensive operation. Mr Sanghavi was reluctant to talk figures but industry sources put the operation at about Rs 250 million.
Shipbreaking has been big in other parts of the world, such as Taiwan, but of late India has been excelling at it since they are used to recycling as many things as possible. India now accounts for nearly 33 per cent of ship demolition carried out the world over.