Dick Vermeil gets on board with saving SS United States

SHIP 1 BARGER- 7/23/96- The S.S. United States ship is pulled toward the Delaware River near Rehoboth (sp?) Beach, DE by the tugboat, Schmit New York. In foreground is a pilot boat. The S.S. United States holds the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing but has been out of service since 1969.
SHIP 1 BARGER- 7/23/96- The S.S. United States ship is pulled toward the Delaware River near Rehoboth (sp?) Beach, DE by the tugboat, Schmit New York. In foreground is a pilot boat. The S.S. United States holds the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing but has been out of service since 1969.
Posted: June 01, 2012

IN A NEW public-service announcement, former Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil has a dark prediction: The United States is "only months away from possibly disappearing forever."

It’s the kind of talk you expect in political ads during an election year, but Vermeil isn’t speaking out for politicians or espousing doomsday theories. He’s rallying support for a $1 million campaign to keep the SS United States from becoming scrap metal.

The ship’s now known more for being the hulking behemoth rusting across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea in South Philly, but for decades it held the speed record for crossing the North Atlantic. Bigger than the Titanic and speedier than the Queen Mary, the ship celebrates the 60th anniversary of its maiden voyage from New York City to England this year. It carried famous passengers including Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali in its heyday.

"This is the most famous ship that didn’t sink," said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy.

Retired in 1969, the SS United States has been docked at Philadelphia’s Pier 82 for 16 years. With a $5.8 million pledge from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the Conservancy was able to purchase and save the ocean liner in 2011. The money donated by Lenfest was enough to buy the ship and cover the associated costs for about 20 months, but that money is slated to run out in November. (Lenfest is a part owner of Philadelphia Media Network, which includes the Daily News.)

Gibbs — whose grandfather William Francis Gibbs was the architect and engineer who designed the SS United States — said the $1 million goal of this year’s "Save the United States" campaign is just "an initial rallying cry." It will take far more to turn the ship into the museum, educational facility and real-estate opportunity that the Conservancy hopes it will become.

"It’s basically in the same condition," said Gibbs. "We’re, of course, always tending to the vessel ... but we have not yet begun real restoration work."

On June 15, the Conservancy will host a 60th-anniversary celebration at the Independence Seaport Museum. A new documentary about the ship will be shown during the party, and Vermeil — who Gibbs said has been an SS United States "supporter for some time" — will be there. More details: ssusc.org.

Reach Stephanie Farr at farrs@phillynews.com or 215-854-4225. You can also follow her on Twitter @FarFarrAway and read her blog "Daily Delco" at philly.com/dailydelco.

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