The sinking of ‘The Statue’ in Pennekamp park

A short history of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is needed to clarify the location the Christ of the Abyss statue for today’s visitors and citizens new to the Upper Keys area in the last 40 or so years.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at its inception was the first underwater state park in the continental United States. Dedication ceremonies were held in 1963. At that time the water area of the park was some 75 square miles. The boundaries ran from just south of Molasses Light to a point Westerly inshore to Marker #37, then northerly following the easterly channel markers for Hawks Channel to Marker 23 East of Ocean Reef, then easterly to Whistle Buoy #2, then southerly along a line dictated by a water depth of 60 feet.

The staff at the park was made up of a very diverse group of folks, as this was a park being mostly developed by park personnel. This included the construction of picnic pavilions and tables, modification of concession areas, planting of landscape materials and providing services to park visitors. No one was specialized even though most were hired for their specialties. All performed many of the varied task required in establishing the “land base.” The water areas of the park were patrolled by the park’s rangers, several of whom were specially deputized as deputy U.S. game wardens. This allowed enforcement of park laws beyond the three mile state waters limit.

Young leaders chosen

The leadership of Florida Park Service recognized the need to have a young, focused, energetic supervisory staff to accomplish the daunting task of development while operating and promoting the park. Ellison E. Hardee, a 28-year-old Florida native, was chosen as park superintendent. Another young task-oriented fellow, Johnny Johnston, was chosen as assistant park superintendent.

Johnny did have what would be a very valuable skill when it came time to put the statue in place. Johnny had been a Navy Underwater Demolition Team frogman, the predecessors to today’s Navy Seals. Together, “Hardee,” as he preferred to be called, and Johnny made an excellent team to carry out the task they would be assigned. They were amazing, as they could motivate their staff to work for next to nothing and love them for it. The staff went above and beyond the required duty almost daily.

It should be noted that this was a time when civilian use of scuba equipment was just getting started in the Keys. Most of the statue installation crew were self-taught divers who learned the skill of scuba diving catching crawfish (Florida lobster) for pocket money. I was personally trained as a teenager in such a manner and purpose by my Coral Shores High School class mate, Harry Kietz Jr. He later became the owner of American Diving Headquarters and taught me to “ breath normally and don’t come up faster than your bubbles.”

To the best of my knowledge, few people were certified divers in the area at that time. For sure there were no requirements for “diver certification” to refill scuba tanks.

The statue itself was donated by the Underwater Society of America to the State of Florida. As I understand it, the donation to the society had come from the Italian diving community, and the casting was the second one made. The Italian original statue, “Christ of the Abyss” was commissioned by the Cressi family, an Italian dive equipment manufacture.

Location controversy

The location for the placement of the statue caused a hotbed of controversy in the local business community. Business owners could readily see the economic impact it could bring to the area.

Each of the local dive shops, which were starting to spring up in the Upper Keys, had an opinion as to the location — the closer to their business the better. The powers-that-be in Tallahassee were of little help, as politicians are politicians and decisions had to be made weighing political effect. No one in the central office of the Park Service wanted to make the call as to where the statue should be placed.

As the debate on the “proper” location for placement for the statue heated up, Ellison Hardee was called to the offices of the Miami Herald to meet with John Pennekamp. Pennekamp was a senior reporter/editor and a driving force behind the park’s establishment.

Pennekamp was very influential as to what happened in the park’s development. He instructed Hardee to find a location on the reef line with the assistance of Sandy Sprunt. Sprunt was a member of the park advisory board and worked for the National Audubon Society whose local office was in Tavernier.

Johnston, the assistant park superintendent, was involved in this effort also, according to his recollections of the event. Their instructions from Pennekamp were clear. Find the best location for the placement without regard for any special interest, a very tough job to say the least, considering how many special interests there were in this event.

During the search for a final location on the reef, the statue was temporarily placed on a concrete slab on the southeasterly side of the bridge at the concession area. This allowed all park visitors to view the statue. If memory serves me, a plaque or sign also was attached that described the donation from Italy.

Some secrecy

The search for the perfect location continued with great discretion, if not in some secrecy for several days. Although “several days” indicates a quick resolution to the problem, I feel sure the process may have taken months, with many dives in several locations. All parties involved had other pressing responsibilities to attend to as well as weather and sea conditions to contend with. The size of the boats used were much smaller with less ability to handle rough seas and chop than those in use by the average boater of today.

A final location was settled on at Key Largo Dry Rocks on the seaward side of the reef. The chosen spot was a beautiful box canyon with a depth of 27 feet, open on the southeasterly side. The canyon rose up to the surface to one of the most beautiful coral formations in the park. A huge brain coral was on Northerly side which greatly enhanced the visual effect when the statue was placed there.

The final location decided upon, the time was at hand to plan the project, keeping in mind that money was not available to hire a private contractor to accomplish the task. Estimates had been obtained and were way beyond the Park Service budget for such a project. The Florida Parks Service yearly budget for the entire system was well below a million dollars. That left the ingenuity of the park’s management team, staff and an architect, Warren Dixon from the Parks Service central office, to design the base, transport the materials, place the foundation, lay the base, and then place the statue as the final step.

A tiny budget

A budget of about $2,500 dollars had been established. Hardee knew that that figure would not come close to the funds required, but he continued anyway. Pennekamp used his considerable influence and obtained donations of concrete from Maule Industries, a concrete manufacturing facility in the Miami area. This donation along with what could be begged from local park vendors and the “we can get it done” attitude of the park staff was what we had.

The difficult, labor-intensive task of constructing the base area on the ocean floor was accomplished with everyday hand tools — hammers, pry bars, levels and sledge hammers — used underwater to clear and level the site of as much loose debris as possible. A form of sorts was constructed of plywood and secured to the sea bed to contain the concrete as much as possible, making the foundation as square and level as possible.

Serious business

Then the serious business of laying a foundation of bags of concrete began. The boat used to transport the bags of cement was a 17-foot Thunderbird cathedral hull with a pair of very cantankerous 65-horsepower outboard engines. This boat probably had only 8 inches of freeboard at the stern when setting empty idle in the water.

We would load this boat with as many bags of concrete as we felt it would hold and head out to the site, a distance of some 6 to 8 miles, depending on the route taken.

Remember the freeboard issue? The operator of this boat had to be very aware of the backwash when slowing down because the water would come over the stern and down she would go if you weren’t careful. At times one would wonder if the little boat could take the beating she got.

The second boat was a 21-foot AFI with a pair of experimental 55-horsepower four-cycle outboard engines. I believe these experimental engines were given to the park to test and demonstrate their reliability and economy to the boating public.

This boat was a conventional semi-V hull and was pressed into the same duty as the tri hull. But, because it was bigger, it was loaded even more heavily. This hull configuration slapped the ocean chop even more harshly and shuddered at every wave.

Thank God I was a very young man at that time. I don’t think my knees, kidneys or other joints and organs could survive the physical beating of the numerous boat trips to the site otherwise.

Each bag of Sackrete weighted 50 pounds and was hand delivered to the underwater form by divers. Needless to say, a weight belt was not necessary to reach the bottom when carrying the bags. As the Sackete was placed, the paper bags were ripped away as much as possible so a bond would form in the concrete and the final “pour” could be leveled as much as possible.

Sealife supervises

During this process, Hardee recalls seeing a shadow circling above Johnny. He looked up to see a shark checking out the “operation.” Or was he looking for dinner? A small grouper decided the operation had merit and became the unofficial superintendent overseeing the job. I think the fish was paid in Vienna sausage hand-delivered by the divers. As I recall Vienna sausage and potted meat with Neda crackers was the staple of Johnny Johnston’s personal diet when on the water.

With this process complete, the site was ready for the rest of the base, which would weigh some 50,000 pounds, and then the statue would be placed.

The wedding-cake-style concrete base was constructed at the park land base in separate tiers. The bottom slab was 11 feet square and a foot or more thick as I recall.

Four 11/4-inch bronze rods threaded at the top with an “L” shape on the bottom were embedded in the first slab to guide and secure the subsequent layers and the statue in place.

The statue was inverted on the concession boat hoist and filled with concrete to add additional weight and strength.

With the base slabs completed, the time had come to transport them and the statue to the underwater site. A barge and dragline with an operator was rented from Alonso Cothron Construction to transport and set the base and statue.

The barge and dragline unit was tugged into the park marina and the statue and base sections loaded.

A long, slow trip

The package was then pulled or pushed by tug boat through the winding creeks and out to Key Largo Dry Rocks for placement. The trip was long and very slow. I would suspect it took the better part of a day. About this time, Hardee realized that the operation was going to far exceed the meager funds available. During this whole process, Johnny and Hardee had become friends with Peter Ekblom, Alonso Cothrons’ son-in-law, and, I believe, overall operations superintendent.

Pete accepted what the park could pay and generously donated the additional equipment time. Park Ranger Burl Bliss had been a crane operator on ore ships on the Great Lakes and was pressed into duty as the dragline operator for the placement to complete the task.

With the barge with cargo on site and the weather favorable, now was the time to literally put things in place. The first slab was the most crucial to set It had to be perfectly aligned with the foundation slab for the subsequent base sections to line up square with the base slab. Positioning this first base slab was not an easy task. In the water a diver has little power to push or pull as a significant degree of weightlessness exist.

With base slab one in position, the rest of the slabs were guided into place.

With all the base slabs in place, the statue was lowered very slowly and precisely aligned on the base bolts. As we tightened the large nuts on the bolts, one bolt’s threads apparently stripped.

Well this created quite a dilemma. The issue had to be resolved. All of our hard work to accomplish this task couldn’t end with less than perfection.

The nut was filled with concrete and worked into place. After the cement was set up, you could not tell which bolt was not properly installed.

One of the most amazing aspects of this operation was its secrecy. Dan McCane, a freelance reporter friend of the park, was there writing articles. Dan was not included in any of the activities nor allowed to take photos. Hardee was fearful that if the endeavor failed, he would be severely dealt with. As we reflect back, he probably would have lost his job and undergone the public humiliation of “Told You So” news articles.

How the operation was kept out of the local and Miami newspapers is a mystery.

Then, a hurricane

In the initial planning stages of the project, a noted professor of oceanography at the University of Miami had predicted the location as doubtful for the statue to withstand the first hurricane.

Well, as luck would have it, we finished the project in August 1965, two weeks after it was completed. On Sept. 8, Hurricane Betsy struck the Upper Keys with a 40-mile-wide eye crossing directly over Key Largo, with her Category 3 sustained winds of 130 miles per hour and gust even higher. I can only imagine what the wave surge on the ocean floor at Key Largo Dry Rocks was like.

Hardee and Johnny went to see if the statue was still there even before the seas had settled. Johnny dove down and through almost zero visibility found the Christ statue was still in perfect position.

A dedication ceremony was held on June 29, 1966, attended by many dignitaries and with much fanfare. Pennekamp gave high praise to the park staff for accomplishing such a difficult task with less-than-adequate funding and expertise.

However with the adventurous leadership willing to try it, the dedicated personnel determined to accomplish the task, and a lot of luck, the statue remains today as it was placed 45 years ago!