LA PORTE, Texas - Children shimmy up the barrels of massive cannons on the upper decks of the 100-year-old Battleship Texas, focused on firing at an imaginary enemy and oblivious to the tension in the historic vessel's belly where a crew works on pumping out dozens of gallons of oil-laced water.
The battleship where the young tourists roam became flooded over the weekend. Staff arrived Saturday and immediately noticed something was wrong with the ship that fought in World Wars I and II and has served since 1948 as a memorial and museum to those who sacrificed their lives.
The vessel was sitting awkwardly in its slip. She was lower in the water and listing to the left.
"We got down to the lower portions of the ship and discovered that we had taken on more water than usual in areas that we normally don't," ship manager Andy Smith said. "They started pumping throughout the day Saturday, and it got progressively worse."
The situation was so dire by Sunday that the ship's caretaker, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, had to find more pumps to help remove the water. Smith said the news got worse on Monday.
Water had entered areas that housed old oil tanks used when the ship was still in active duty and serving in every theater in World War II. The Navy had emptied out the oil before handing the vessel over to Texas, but hadn't cleaned out the tanks. Smith realized he had an environmental issue on his hands.
He hired a company to skim the oil off the top of the water and set up boom in case any of it landed in Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel. Meanwhile, Smith's pumps are working nonstop to remove the water from the bottom, and at least ensure no more liquids get on the vessel.
"It seems like every time we turn around there's more oil because obviously it's very residual but it spreads really nice, especially in this nice Texas heat," Smith said.
Until the oil is removed, workers can't get out all the water and look for the source of the problem, which could be several things. It is possible, he said, that the oil will be completely removed by late Wednesday. Then, it should only take a few hours to remove the water, though Smith said he is preparing for the possibility that more water will flow in for a short time after the oil is completely removed due to a change in pressure.
Still, he hopes to at least know the source of the problem by Thursday so the crew can begin designing a repair plan.
World War II veteran William R. Bradshaw, 87, hopes to be part of the repair effort. On Wednesday, he sat in a shady area of the vessel as rowdy children ran up the ramp. He was waiting to discuss with Smith whether the epoxy his plastics company produces can seal the holes, as it did in 1985 when the battleship had a five-month leak that befuddled the crew.
"I've always thought that I would develop a product that would be dedicated to the Navy," Bradshaw said, proud that his company, Bradco Plastics, Inc., has had a part in ensuring future generations can visit the historic ship. "It's kind of like coming home again because when you spend over two years on one at sea, you get all the cruise experience you really want. So it's something that it's nice to come back to."
Smith simply wants to get to the point where he can repair the problem and move ahead with a long-term, multimillion-dollar plan to build a dry berth for the battleship.
"It's a mammoth effort to keep her preserved. She is an artifact. She is a museum, too," Smith said, noting that normally artifacts are preserved in a climate-controlled environment, "on velvet, under glass."
"She can't be that way. We actually let people play on the artifact, run around on her, and the artifact interacts with the environment in a lot of negative ways," Smith said. "So we rust, constantly rust. There's deterioration, the sun beating down, hot, cold, all of that has an effect, long-term effect, on the ship."