Thursday, January 14, 2010

Florida resident's family part of aircraft carrier's reef history USA, LLC

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MIAMI _ When Patricia Balzarini learned Miami-Dade County was trying to obtain the 888-foot retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Oriskany as an artificial reef, she got pretty excited.

The 49-year-old South Dade resident doesn't scuba dive, so the fact it would be the largest ship deliberately sunk as a dive site wasn't her main concern.

But Balzarini has a special connection to the Oriskany that makes her want the ship to come to rest in her back yard.

Two of her uncles, John and Charles Iarrobino, served as commanders of the carrier in the Pacific in the 1960s. Charles skippered the ship in 1962-63, followed by John in 1966-67. They are believed to be the first brothers to command the same Navy ship.

``As a kid, I went out to San Diego to see John Iarrobino take command of the ship,'' Balzarini said. ``We were whistled on board and saluted.''

Balzarini was disappointed to hear the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission endorsed the Gulf waters off Escambia County as the preferred site for sinking the Oriskany _ if Florida gets the ship.

The carrier is tied to a dock in Beaumont, Texas, while the Navy seeks proposals for cleaning it. Early next year, the Navy is expected to issue a formal request for bids this fall for states and counties that want to claim the ship as an artificial reef.

The FWC selected the site off Escambia County based on a decision matrix that heavily favored the county's naval heritage. Escambia is home to the Pensacola Navy Base and Naval Air Museum and to FWC chairman Edwin Roberts.

Balzarini said she believes southeast Florida waters would be a much better destination for the ship.

``Even though I don't dive, to have an aircraft carrier here . . .,'' she said. ``This is a tourist area. To dive shipwrecks is a major thing. I think more people could access it here than the cold water of Pensacola. And it'll be a nice home to all the fish.''

Balzarini pointed out that southeast Florida has its own naval heritage. The lower Keys are home to Boca Chica Naval Air Station, plus Fleet Week and the military-themed Air & Sea Show are held each year in Fort Lauderdale.

``I think it would be great for Miami to have something here like Oriskany,'' she said.

Balzarini grew up near Dedham, Mass., where she remembers her uncle John coming to her school to talk to her class about his tour aboard the Oriskany. He told the children about the spectacular fire that broke out aboard the carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin in October 1966, killing 44 servicemen.

A flare exploded in a forward hangar bay, killing several combat pilots who had flown raids over Vietnam a few hours earlier.

Balzarini said her uncle showed her an air mask he designed in the wake of the accident that would have allowed crewmen to breathe while they escaped the deadly fumes.

Balzarini has lived in Miami-Dade since 1972, when she enrolled at the University of Miami. She works as a clerk at CompUSA and crafts ceramics and reads about Vietnam War history in her spare time.

She remained close to her uncle until his death of cancer in 2000, noting he was active in efforts to preserve artifacts and history of the Oriskany after its decommissioning in 1975. Her other uncle Charles is being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital for Alzheimer's disease.

If the Oriskany ends up here, Balzarini wants to go out on a boat and watch it go down. She hopes the fighting ship will regain some of the dignity it has lost sitting unused at the dock in Texas.

``It's for looking at,'' she said. ``If you ever saw it in its glory, that picture in Texas looks sad.''


(c) 2003, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Source Citation
"Florida resident's family part of aircraft carrier's reef history." Miami Herald [Miami, FL] 1 Sept. 2003. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. .

Gale Document Number:CJ119242243

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