THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, December 10, 1995 TAG: 9512060032 SECTION: REAL LIFE PAGE: K1 EDITION: FINAL COLUMN: OBSCURE TOURS LANDMARKS THE TOUR BOOKS NEVER MENTION SOURCE: [EARL SWIFT] LENGTH: Short : 48 lines
AMID A SEA of containers and parked trucks at the Norfolk International Terminals is an island of grass topped by a small concrete monument, its painted inscription chipped and faded.
It marks the spot where, in 1922, the Army dirigible Roma met its end in a spectacular explosion.
Thanks to film, the Hindenberg's fiery death 15 years later ranks among the century's most enduring images. By contrast, the Roma is all but forgotten, its demise commemorated only by this forlorn little marker.
The world's largest semi-rigid airship, the Roma was 410 feet long and filled with 1.2 million cubic feet of buoyant but highly explosive hydrogen.
Disaster came on the dirigible's fourth American test flight. Eager to experiment with aerial war-making, the Army had purchased the Roma from the Italian government in early 1921 and crated the disassembled airship to Langley Field in Hampton.
Reassembled, it flew twice over Hampton Roads, its Italian engines malfunctioning both times. A third voyage to Washington and back was so frought with mechanical troubles that crewmen feared for their lives.
So the Army replaced the Roma's six factory engines with American Liberty power plants and sought to test them on the drizzly afternoon of Feb. 21.
With 45 people aboard, the Roma lifted off from Langley and motored over Willoughby Spit. Then, while it cruised over the old Norfolk Army Depot - now NIT - something went wrong with its boxkite-like rudder, its nose or both.
The Roma dove earthward and struck a 2,300-volt power line. In a flash, 34 people were dead.
At the time, the wreck was among the worst aviation disasters in America.
The monument, about 200 yards from NIT's guard shack, stands beside a flashing sign with a reminder to modern port workers: ``SAFETY BY CHOICE, NOT BY CHANCE.'' ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CITY OF HAMPTON
The Roma hovers over Granby Street in downtown Norfolk in 1921. On
Feb. 21, 1922, the Army dirigible exploded, killing 34.