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Beginning Of The End As Vandenberg Undergoes Final Cleanup, Inspections Before Trip To Key West

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KEY WEST, Florida -- After an almost nine-month stall, a Key West artificial reef project is back on course.

The 524-foot Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is undergoing final cleanup and inspections, so it can be towed to Key West for a planned scuttling in the late spring of this year, according to Key West City Commissioner Bill Verge, the designated project manager.

"We're beginning the final process to bring Vandenberg to Key West," said Verge.

A former U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship, the Vandenberg also tracked Mercury and Gemini spacecraft blastoffs.

The prime attraction of the Vandenberg, according to the project’s Joe Weatherby of Reefmakers, is its huge size and diversified structure that should appeal to divers of all skill levels. While some sections of the ship are expected to rise to within 40 feet of the surface, other areas should appeal to divers with advanced certification to dive in deep environments beneath overhead structures.

Verge expects final work on the Vandenberg to take about five weeks. Following necessary inspections and contingent on weather conditions, the ship is to be towed to Key West. Once in Key West, further work is to be accomplished to prepare it for sinking and recreational diving.

A federal judge seized the vessel in April 2008 and subsequently ordered the auction of the ship after a contractor failed to complete payments to Colonna's Shipyard in Norfolk, Va., for cleanup of the vessel. In December, First State Bank of the Florida Keys was the ship's top bidder at $1.35 million.

The addition of the Vandenberg, which is to lie six miles south of Key West in about 140 feet of water, will anchor the lower end of a dive environment that local dive shops are calling the Florida Keys Wreck Trek. At the top, off Key Largo, is the former Navy Landing Ship Dock Spiegel Grove, currently the second-largest ship in the world ever to be scuttled as an artificial reef.

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