On May 17, 2002, the USS Spiegel Grove sank in the Florida Keys. While her journey to the bottom of the sea was carefully planned, the ship surprised everyone involved by sinking early, “turning turtle” and landing on her side. Three years later, powerful waves and energy from Hurricane Dennis righted her as she sits today, in 130 feet of water off Key Largo.
On the 20th anniversary of her sinking, a group of Keys locals who were intimately involved in the affair gathered at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo. They shared their stories about that unique time in Keys diving history.
In the audience was Ret. Navy Commander Bob Knight, 93. Proudly donning a Spiegel Grove cap and shirt, he said, “I enlisted in 1947 and called the ship home at that time. I’m writing a book about my life and have 50 pages about the Spiegel.”
As he traced over items from the wreck available at a silent auction, he laughed, “I was the engineer and damage controller aboard the Spiegel Grove from April 1960 until June 1962. … I know where these pieces belong.”
Storytime began with renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frink reviewing the history in pictures. He and other panelists of the night were there when the idea to sink a really big ship was hatched at Sharkeys. It would be a world-class dive destination and the largest vessel ever deliberately sunk to become an artificial reef, they hoped. They persisted through nine years of permitting, forms, permissions and environmental tests.
“We sank the Spiegel Grove – sorta!” joked Frink. “This was a day in our lives, collectively.”
Frink went on to describe and show how the 510-foot ship sank unexpectedly and prematurely, prompting an emergency evacuation of all personnel. Andy Newman, media relations director for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, recalled hearing chatter on the emergency radio channel that day, asking if anyone had seen Monroe County Commissoner Murray Nelson. Nelson had just stepped on the ship as it began to sink.
“Silence,” he said. “And, I am thinking, ‘Oh my God, we killed a Monroe County Commissioner.’ Then, I heard he got off on a sheriff’s helicopter, but just today, I learned he got off on another boat.”
Rob Bleser, the sink project manager and owner of Quiescense Diving, proudly shared how more than 60 people got off the ship “without a toenail scratch.” As conditions worsened, he had to throw buoys to the salvage crew to drag them off the ship amid 10-foot seas. He said, “At the end of the day, nobody got hurt, and I don’t know why.”
Eventually, the ship “turned turtle” and rolled, its stern hitting the bottom and its upside-down bow protruding from the water, Frink said. “I chatted with the Coast Guard, and they said, ‘You don’t have a shipwreck; you have a hazard to navigation,’” the photographer added.
Salvage crews nudged the wreck onto her starboard side, and volunteer recreational divers assisted with trying to reorient her. On June 10, 2002, the Spiegel finally sank to the bottom on her side. There she sat, until Hurricane Dennis in 2005 sent an underwater tsunami that righted her.
Bleser was the first to confirm that nature had corrected the ship. As he surfaced from that first sighting, he thought, “It was awe-inspiring. Everything everyone worked so hard for was accomplished. It was mind-boggling.”
“It was an odyssey. It was a nightmare,” said Spencer Slate, a dive operator who helped with the sinking efforts. “But it’s worth it. I dove it this morning.”
As for the Spiegel now, it continues to serve as a beautiful dive site and a large artificial reef. Lad Akins served as the director of REEF during that period. His survey of the site before the sinking turned up two singular fish – a barracuda and a mutton snapper – both in the sandy, otherwise-barren space. Less than one month after the sinking, Akins counted over 46 species of fish. By the five-year mark, over 191 species were using the Spiegel as habitat, Akins said. Nearby reference reefs didn’t experience a noticeable decline. This means that artificial reefs like the Spiegel don’t detract from natural reefs, instead providing needed habitat and structure for marine life where it didn’t exist, Akins explained.
At the end of the evening, Knight stole the show with the last comment. Addressing the panel, he said, “You gentlemen and ladies spent a lot of time trying to sink (my ship). My career was trying to keep it afloat!”