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SS United States Saved From Scrap Heap - To Be Restored and Return To Service - YEAH!

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PHILADELPHIA, April 15, 2003; David Carauso writing for the AP repots that an ocean liner that was the biggest and fastest ever built in the United States, and a symbol of national prestige until it was left to rot on the Philadelphia waterfront, may soon sail again.

Norwegian Cruise Lines said Monday it has purchased the SS United States, and intends to refurbish it and return it to service, a half-century after the massive steamship set a speed record for a trans-Atlantic crossing.

The announcement astounded preservation groups, who had been fighting what looked like a losing battle to rescue the boat from being scrapped.

"I'm stunned," said Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the ship's designer, shipbuilder William Francis Gibbs. "The last several years, the news has all been bleak. It has all been rumors about scrapping, and one failed venture after another."

For years, the SS United States has been a ghostly sight on the Philadelphia waterfront. Seemingly abandoned on an unused wharf, the rusting hulk was little more than a bizarre curiosity for sports fans on their way to the city's sports arenas.

Underneath the peeling paint, though, lay a rich history.

On its maiden voyage in 1952, the powerful liner and its 268,000 shaft horsepower engines set a new trans-Atlantic speed record: 3 days, 10 hours and 42 minutes. That record stood until 1990.

The ship was big, too - at 990 feet, it was 108 feet longer than the Titanic.

And even though the vessel was designed to be converted into a troop transport in times of war, it carried numerous celebrities in more than 800 Atlantic crossings. Its passengers included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, President Kennedy and England's King Edward VIII. Bill Clinton took it on his way to Oxford University in 1968.

Air travel finally did the big boat in. It was decommissioned in 1969, and was briefly stored at ports in Virginia, Turkey and Ukraine before docking in Philadelphia in 1996.

Norwegian Cruise Lines spokeswoman Susan Robison wouldn't say how much the company had paid for the ship, which had been owned by a New Jersey firm, Cantor Companies. Messages left at Cantor's offices were not returned Monday.

Robison also declined to say how much it might cost to refurbish the boat. Previous estimates had been between $200 million and $500 million - figures that had frightened off potential buyers for years.

The ship was gutted in the mid 1990s and its interior will probably need to be redesigned to compete with modern-day cruise ships, Robison said.

Fans of the ship, though, said its torpedo-resistant hull is undamaged and that it could be made seaworthy again.

"She just needs to be sandblasted and rewired and she can sail," said Robert Hudson Westover, 39, chairman of the SS United States Foundation, a group that has been lobbying for the ship's preservation.

"I'm just giddy," he said. "Saving the SS United States is equivalent to saving one of the great engineering wonders of the world."