Scrapping Of Old Ship May Be End Of An Era

Posted: March 13, 1987

With the 20-by-15-foot gash in her bow, the Seawitch looked like her name.

The jagged hole grinned wickedly from the front of the huge vessel, which wallowed in the shoals of the Delaware River at the Camden Terminal like a beached whale.

The 6,000-ton shell of the former container cargo vessel was all that remained after a fiery accident 14 years ago that killed 18 people and injured more than 60.

It is also all that is left of a piece of Camden's shipping past. The Seawitch may well be the last ship ever to be scrapped in Camden.

The ship's journey to the strip bay in Camden began in 1973. In June of that year, the freighter rammed an anchored and fully loaded oil tanker in New York Harbor, setting off raging fires and explosions. Tides drove the blazing hulks under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, spreading an oil slick for miles. The wreckage drifted further down to the Gravesend Bay.

Not until six days later was the fire out.

After years of litigation and legal entanglements, the huge, mangled remnant of the Seawitch was floated to Camden last month where it will soon be transformed into a barge and five-by-two-foot plates of steel.

At one time, ships and barges came to Camden regularly to be stripped. The South Jersey Port Corp. building, once known as the New York Shipbuilding Corp., in the 2500 block of Broadway, was the site of as many as three ship scrappers who operated out of the huge noisy terminal.

But the terminal is soon to be torn down - the South Jersey Port Corp. is advertising for bids for the demolition - and the last ship-scrapping business will have to move. The building, originally used by shipbuilders, has fallen into disrepair and the city's shipbuilding industry is dead.

Bob Bantivoglio, 45, owner of the 10-year-old ship-scrapping business, is a little nostalgic about what, for him, appears to be a kind of dying art in America - dismantling ships for scrap metal.

He said that at one time, there were at least three ship-scrappers in the area, the last of which employed as many as 100 workers. But now there are few around, he said.

"The closest one I know of is somewhere down in Brownsville, Texas, unless there's one up in Maine somewhere," he said.

Bantivoglio said that since 1977, when he started his business, he had dismantled at least 25 ships and numerous barges. But he said the business had fallen on hard times in recent years. Most of the major ship-scrappers today, he said, have moved to such places as Spain, Korea and Taiwan, where labor is cheaper.

Part of the problem, according to Bantivoglio, has been the dying steel industry in this country, brought on by the shift to smaller cars, increased use of plastics and other factors. The demand and the price for steel in the country have dropped so low, he said, that the ship-scrapping business is no longer profitable.

But Bantivoglio intends to finish his last ship-scrapping project, a task he likens to "whittling" a shoe box.

He and his men will reduce the once-proud, 491-foot-long, 56 1/2-foot-high carcass of the Seawitch to five-by-two-foot chunks and reshape the rest into a barge to be used along the Delaware.

"They'll probably make a bunch of razor blades out of her, or maybe some new cars or refrigerators," Bantivoglio said. "I remember once a ship I did came back as steel beams. The ship is now helping to hold up the Garden State race track."

Bantivoglio, a thickset man who works out of a trailer parked beneath the mammoth, rusting, 80-foot-high scaffolding of the terminal, said the vessel cost him $60 a ton, or about $360,000. He expects to get about $70 per ton when he sells the scrap metal.

He said that with a 12-man crew wielding propane torches (he plans to hire seven to eight more workers), his company will have the ship dismantled in two months - in time to beat the demolition of the terminal building, which he said is six months away.

"A ship like this is just a box," he said. "I can cut that down in 2 1/2 months. What you do is, you have watertight bulkheads every 90 feet. So you

cut it down to where she's floating.

"On a high tide, you pull it up and cut the next 90 feet. You just repeat the process until there is nothing left. In other words, as she pops up you bring it in and and cut it off and as she pops up some more, you cut it down some more. You just whittle it down.

"You'd be surprised how fast she'd fall apart."

As he walked beneath the thundering crane, which was sliding 80 feet above carrying metal from his workers to a nearby truck, Bantivoglio recalled that Camden was once a big shipping port and that nearly 30,000 people once worked in the soon-to-be-torn-down terminal. He said the terminal once stretched all the way to the Walt Whitman Bridge. Vessels such as the Kitty Hawk and the Savannah were once constructed there, he said.

But those days are gone. "The shipbuilding and shipwrecking industry have left America," Bantivoglio said, as he pushed his way back to his trailer through the scraps of debris on the terminal floor.

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