Off Course

"Big E"runs aground

He had guided one of the largest ships afloat through eight months and 46,500 uneventful miles at sea. Suddenly Captain Robert J. Kelly, at the helm of the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise and a mere 1,700 yds. from voyage's end in San Francisco Bay, felt what he called "a very deep feeling in the pit of my stomach." His 1,123-ft.-long, 75,700-ton nuclear-powered vessel had veered out of its 42-ft.-deep channel and slid to a stop in 29 ft. of water.

For more than five hours, the huge flattop sat ignobly in the calm water, stuck in the mud of the bay. The 3,500-man crew could only stare across the short, unbridgeable distance to some 3,000 friends and relatives waiting in frustration at Alameda Naval Air Station, the carrier's home port. On shore, a gentle drizzle ruined the coiffures of women who had long looked forward to the reunions. Shirley Genson of Centerville, Ala., lamented, "This is my wedding day, and he's stuck out there." Said Debbie Harris of Show Low, Ariz., about her husband, Petty Officer Kenneth Harris: "It's awful hard being able to see him, but not see him." Through the waiting crowd rippled a common joke: "The crew must have asked the captain to head for the nearest bar. And he did."

Eleven tugs, like minnows trying to budge a whale, nudged the carrier or pulled with tow lines, but the Enterprise did not move. In a maneuver akin to righting an unbalanced rowboat, the ship's crew was ordered to assemble on the carrier's port side. Their combined weight, coupled with the shifting of water in the vessel's ballast tanks, was meant to tip the ship in hopes of freeing it. But the keel, which normally requires 36 ft. of water for safe clearance, remained stuck. Only with the help of the outgoing tide did the Enterprise finally break loose from its unwanted mooring and finish its long journey home.

The accident was mostly an embarrassment, certainly nothing like the explosion and fire that had killed 28 Enterprise crew members during training maneuvers off Hawaii in January 1969. Still, Captain Kelly had just recently learned that, after commanding the ship for 3½ years, he had been recommended for promotion to commodore. Although a civilian pilot was advising Kelly during the harbor entry, the skipper declared, "I am totally responsible for what happened." A Navy investigation will determine whether Kelly's new broad stripe was lost in the mud, along with the proud ship's dignity.

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BRUCE LAINGEN, one of 14 former hostages who reunited at West Point to mark the 30th anniversary of their release from captivity in Iran; 52 hostages in total were released on Jan. 20, 1981 after being held for 444 days
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