New York: The USS New York reached New York City on Monday morning, sweeping under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, pausing at the World Trade Center site and pushing along the Upper West Side before circling around, like a contestant in a beauty pageant, to dock in Midtown Manhattan.
It was the end of an inaugural five-day voyage from Norfolk, Va., for the ship's official commissioning into the Navy fleet on Saturday, as well as an emotional "homecoming" for a vessel that was named for the state after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and has 7.5 tons of steel from the twin towers cast into its bow.
''It's fantastic to be here," said Cmdr Curt Jones, the ship's captain and a New York native, as he stepped out of the bridge to take in his surroundings. "It really does feel like we're coming home."
SAD MEMORIES DOCKED: The USS New York is scheduled to be commissioned in a ceremony on Saturday.
The sailors and Marines on board began manning the rails of the ship early, well before 0700 hrs local time, despite the wind and occasional drizzle that left many hopping from foot to foot to stay warm in their dress uniforms. The crew included a large number of New Yorkers who volunteered for the assignment, and they watched with anticipation as the city skyline emerged from a flat, gray dawn.
"I've seen this view before," said Lavar Johnson, 29, a petty officer second class from Yonkers. "It's just more significant now."
The ship docked adjacent to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on Manhattan's West Side. The sailors and Marines aboard will spend the days leading up to the commissioning ceremony giving public tours of the blocky but technologically sophisticated vessel, and the military equipment it contains. Once in service, the ship, an amphibious transport dock, will be used to transport up to 700 Marines and combat equipment to conflicts around the world.
The Navy had raced to do the testing of the ship needed to meet its commissioning date, which is already emblazoned on a plaque inside. Lt. Rick Zabawa of Saratoga Springs, NY, who as the deck officer was the "conductor" of the ship's movements in the hours before it docked, said the arrival in New York represented "the culmination of all this hard work."
Those aboard were awakened Monday at 0400 hrs local time, earlier than usual, with reveille whistles followed by the crackly sound of Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York" over the loudspeaker. As the rest of those on board were eating pancakes and eggs in the galley or donning dress uniforms, those on the red-lighted bridge of the ship assumed a quiet intensity in anticipation of the final navigation into and up the Hudson River.
About 0500 hrs local time, a small boat sped alongside the warship and Neil Keating, 52, a harbour pilot, clambered up the gray metal exterior to help guide the ship through the busy waters. Keating, 52, had requested the assignment more than a year ago because his brother, a firefighter, died when the towers collapsed.
''Today is bittersweet," said Keating, who has helped ships travel in the harbour for more than 30 years. "For me, it's an honor to be on board, but you hate to be on board for the reasons I am here. I think my brother would have been proud of me."
By 0630 hrs local time, the first of the sailors and Marines were making their way to the decks, to stake out good spots for the entry into the harbor. Some were excited about seeing New York for the first time, while others were enjoying the prospect of such a grand arrival to the area where they grew up.
''We're riding through like the Cadillac of the fleet that we are," said Sharef Talbert, 30, a petty officer first class from Newark, who has been readying the ship for its arrival since February. "There is no better way to ride into New York."
As the ship continued up river, helicopters rattled overhead and the surrounding waters filled with other vessels — police boats, tugs, barges, pleasure craft, and fireboats transformed into floating fountains. Spectators watched from the Circle Line. Rounding Battery Park, Cmdr. Erich B. Schmidt, the executive officer, spoke to the crew through a loudspeaker. "You've done a great job getting us here," he said. "Enjoy it. That's all."
The ship came to a stop adjacent to ground zero, where a large crowd of onlookers had gathered along the shoreline, the military men lifted their hands in a long salute, followed by an honorary firing of guns. Some visibly teared up during the brief tribute.
Afterward, the ship continued up the Hudson past the Firemen's Memorial, at 100th Street, which in the weeks after 9/11 New Yorkers filled with baskets of flowers, loose candles and sorrowful notes, and which to many still evokes the losses of that day. Passers-by stopped to watch the spectacle of the enormous warship heading toward the George Washington Bridge.
When the ship finally eased into to its berth in Midtown at 1000 hrs local time, the front section of bow, where the celebrated section of steel breaks the waves, already revealed the early, unavoidable streaks of rust of a ship at sea.
A father's moment of pride
When the USS New York sailed into New York Harbour early on Monday morning, Wayne Collins got choked up watching on CNN.
His son, Dallas, a 2008 Manatee High School graduate, is an E-3 seaman on the 361-member crew.
The bow of the new amphibious assault vessel was built in Avondale, La., with 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the fallen World Trade Center.
Yet Collins, a former Marine, was moved by more than just that.
It was seeing TV shots of solemn first-responders and families of 9-11 victims as the warship fired a 21-gun salute offshore from Ground Zero.
''I was near tears," said Collins, 64. "Not just because of my son and not just because of the significance of the ship. But it was the people who lost their lives in the attack and their families. To have them see this ship, I can't imagine those emotions."
He knew how Dallas felt, having spoken to his 19-year-old son on Sunday as the USS New York neared the end of its four-day journey from Norfolk, Va.
''You can imagine how exciting this is for a 19-year-old kid," Collins said.
The warship, called "an amphibious transport dock," is the length of two football fields, can carry 800 Marines and has a flight deck for helicopters and Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft.
Its crest features an image of the Twin Towers behind a rising phoenix and the words, "Never Forget."
Dallas hasn't forgotten
''He's extremely proud and recognizes the importance of it," said Collins, a single father. "I raised him the last nine years and I know it made an incredible impact on him. We watched it together. Even then he was more inclined to keep up with what's going on in the world."
Dallas was in JROTC at Manatee High and played rugby with the Bradenton Bulldogs, but after graduation pondered what to do with the next stage of his life.
''His heart was in the military and, because of the economy, he knew he wasn't going anywhere," Collins said. "So I encouraged him to look at the Navy. A lot of our family has been in the Navy."
Dallas joined last January, went through basic training and eventually received orders three months ago to report to Louisiana.
''When he saw it was the New York, he was ecstatic," Collins said. "The odds were slim. A lot of Navy veterans wanted to be on that ship just because of the symbolism. It's an honor to serve on that ship."
The USS New York is scheduled to be commissioned in a ceremony on Saturday and will remain in the city through Veteran's Day, then return to Norfolk for crew training and exercises.
Collins will be at the commissioning, a guest of the Navy.
''It's going to be a heavy event," he said.