Emerging from the rusted hull of the warship Laffey, state Treasurer Converse Chellis took out his cell phone to call for funding right from the destroyer's deck.
Speaking with another member of the state Budget and Control Board, Chellis said: "I have been down to the very bottom of the Laffey, and it's like sponge down there. They really need some help."
A few conversations later, a majority of the five-member board had agreed by phone to a $9.2 million loan to the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum for repairs to the ship. In those brief moments Thursday morning, the famed World War II ship's fate changed from uncertain at best to an almost assured rehabilitation.
But the funding comes with one caveat: Patriots Point must repay the loan within 18 months.
The attraction's officials hope that $20 million in federal funding requested by U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., will come through next year. They promised to use that money toward the debt.
Chellis said the $9.2 million becomes available as soon as the Budget and Control Board formally approves the loan. Because the board does not meet again until June 29 and Patriots Point officials hope to move the ship to dry dock by an August high tide, Chellis said he would try to get the go-ahead in a phone vote even sooner.
Patriots Point interim executive director Dick Trammell said the destroyer otherwise might not move until September, "right in the heart of storm season."
Laffey veterans joined Chellis on a tour of the ship, some traveling hundreds of miles to be there. The ship's association each year holds several work parties to paint and make repairs, though their efforts above the waterline never uncovered the dire situation below.
Sonny Walker, president of the Laffey Association, came down from Maryland not knowing what to expect. He rallied a group of veterans who, standing on the pier, rehashed discussions over the past few months about whether to turn the ship into an artificial reef or repair it.
Patriots Point officials recently learned that sinking the Laffey would cost about $488,000 less than restoration, a small difference on a $9 million price tag. The attraction's board then resolved to seek help from state leaders and found an audience at the treasurer's office.
Addressing Chellis, Walker said Thursday, "You don't know how happy we are today."
The treasurer, a former Air Force captain, took time to chat with Lee Hunt, a James Island resident who served in the Battle of Okinawa that earned Laffey the reputation as "The Ship that Would Not Die." Hunt said his watch station caught fire during the onslaught of Japanese kamikaze planes that killed 32 men and wounded another 71, out of a crew of 336.
Walking along the ship's deck Thursday, Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said, "This is where my grandfather stood."
Smith's grandfather shot down a kamikaze so close to striking the ship that debris injured some of his fellow sailors. The younger Smith took an active role in generating support for Patriots Point and held a flashlight for Chellis as he felt chunks of the ship crumble in his hands.
Back on land, Laffey veterans and Patriots Point officials alike cheered as Chellis shared the good news that he had gotten the necessary support.
"This is a monument," Chellis said. "It is a monument to a generation that defended liberty. It is a monument to those brave men who fought for freedom. And it is a monument to those who gave the last true measure of devotion. We must save this ship."
Sen. Chip Campsen and Rep. Chip Limehouse, both Charleston Republicans, also toured the ship Thursday before Chellis arrived. That afternoon Limehouse said he supports the repairs but that Patriots Point should focus now on federal funding for the future.
"A state intergovernmental loan to stabilize the Laffey is probably a good point to stop, catch our breath and figure out what we're going to do," Limehouse said. "The reason the Navy gave us all those ships is because they are prohibitively expensive to own and keep."
Patriots Point outlined in March a $64 million master plan to repair its entire fleet of warships and revitalize the attraction. Its board soon will award a contract to formally develop a master plan, though the military museum still lacks a financial strategy to implement that plan.