Filming Inside a "Ghost Ship"

by Vicky Matthews, Break It Down Series Producer

blog post photo

Filming the deconstruction of the USS Savannah AOR-4 was probably one of the most interesting projects I’ve done in a long time. The ship had spent years shut up and anchored in the James River, alongside dozens of other decommissioned Navy vessels (Google “ghost fleet” to find out more about that — truly amazing stuff). When she arrived at ESCO Marine, the first thing the work crew had to do was a safety walk-through.

A small team lead by CJ Mire inspected the ship, checking for potential hazards — like eroded decking, walkways, and ladders. They tested air quality in the lower decks and engine room. They also devised a temporary in and out system: spray painted luminous orange arrows on the walls and floor to guide workers to the nearest exits. Armed with our cameras and flashlights, we went along.

It was hard to capture the atmosphere on film… the ship was of course completely dark, the air was stale, and our perceptions were limited to the ring of light from our flashlights. But as we made our way down dark passages, through the Captain’s quarters, the CIC room, the galley, and sleeping quarters, the sense of history was powerful.

There’s something very disturbing about being in a place that was once packed with human lives, but now is dark and empty. It’s just feels wrong. All the energy and drama is missing. And my mind began to play tricks on me — more than once I flicked my light into a dark corner, half-convinced I’d seen movement.

Many of the workers told me they took care to avoid being alone when they worked on the ships. They told me stories of strange noises and impossibly slamming doors… of seeing figures walk past them, only to discover there was no one else working in that area that day.

I don’t happen to believe in ghosts, but I do think our human powers of empathy and imagination make us sensitive to the lives that came before us. From the company president down to the guys stripping wire, everyone I met was acutely aware that this ship was once full of thousands of former shipmates, who lived, slept, and worked together in service to their country.

The Savannah may not have been a great flagship, but she was impressive and dignified to the last… and echoed with the crew that called her home.

Video Preview: “Avoiding Catastrophe” — The USS Savannah is starting to break in half, and sinking would lead to environmental disaster. But can the crew repair the rift?

Don’t miss the new episode, Break It Down: Navy Tanker, airing this Thursday July 8 at 9P et/pt.


  1. Jeffery Fortune
    Grand Rapids Mn.
    February 15, 2014, 1:27 pm

    I served aboard Savannah 1990-1992 and could not believe the episode as I walked past a TV station at my job. I had to pause to take it in… here they were dismantling a place I had spent two years of my life in and consequently shared with shipmates that became brothers. It was like watching your house destroyed. I have numerous pictures of life on board Savannah while we steamed through the Red Sea and into the Persian Gulf, she was an important staple for the fleet and moreover the USS America battle group at that time. I am sure that I am not the only shipmate who is saddened by her demise…

  2. Tom Gorrell
    Hardyston, NJ
    February 27, 2015, 6:55 am

    I served on the Savannah from April 1982-December 1985.
    The goosebumps I felt watching this program was surreal, well put Jeffrey, it was like watching your old house being dismantled .
    The tour through the Engine Room especially was personal.

  3. Patrick
    January 8, 2016, 4:54 pm

    I sat in stunned disbelief as I watched her being broken down. As ships go she wasn’t even old. I served aboard her in the 80’s. I know people that worked on her during her construction in the Fore River Shipyard. It’s ships like her that keep the Navy afloat.