The retired Boeing 727 jetliner was billed as the jewel of Miami-Dade's thriving artificial reef program.
But almost as soon as the "Spirit of Miami" was scuttled 17 years ago, vandals unbolted steel cables attaching it to the bottom of Biscayne Bay and made off with souvenirs. Tropical Storm Gordon snapped it into pieces in 1995.
Rolling free on the sandy bottom, the pieces scattered, and the reef that had been sunk with national fanfare disappeared, pretty much forgotten -- until now.
As workers from the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) checked possible locations for new artificial reefs earlier this spring with laser-assisted depth-sound equipment, they found ``a couple of blips we had not seen before,'' said Steve Blair, chief of the agency's restoration and enhancement section.
In a follow-up dive, they discovered three pieces of the Spirit of Miami: a part of the tail section lying on its side, a portion of the fuselage and a piece of the wing.
The remains lie in the sand 110 feet deep, about 500 feet northeast of the original deployment site three miles off Key Biscayne. Several other artificial reefs, including the Ophelia Brian sunk last December, lie nearby.
"That wreck put diving in Miami on the map," said Stephen O'Neal, owner of the Miami salvage company that supplied the plane. "It's exciting talking about it after all these years."
The pieces of the wreck are now covered with soft corals and dotted with spiny oysters that snap their shells closed when divers approach, as a group discovered on a recent dive with Capt. Mike Beach of the Big Com-Ocean dive boat based at Miami Beach Marina.