Is the S.S. United States headed toward the scrap yard?

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The SS United States. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )

The conservancy that owns the SS United States, a former queen of the sea that now rusts at a South Philadelphia dock, intends to retain a broker to explore selling the ship to a metals recycler.

The group said on its website and in interviews Wednesday that it has never been closer to losing the ship to the scrap yard, despite making progress toward its potential redevelopment.

It costs more than $60,000 a month to care for the vessel, and while fund-raising efforts have met that, "the financial burdens imposed by the ship's ongoing expenses have become unsustainable," the statement said.

The group made similar declarations a year ago, saying in August 2014 that crucial decisions about the fate and future of the ship would have to be made that fall. In February, the nonprofit said it had received an anonymous $250,000 donation.

Susan Gibbs, the conservancy's executive director, said Wednesday that the quarter-of-a-million-dollar donation helped keep the effort afloat, but financial pressures have continued to grow.

"We're not crying wolf," she said. "We've reached a point at which we are compelled to explore this 'negative outcome.' We're hoping we can pull off an eleventh-hour save."

Gibbs could not say how much money was being sought.

"We need time," she said, citing ongoing plans to place a refurbished United States on the New York City waterfront. "We need to achieve a sustainable path forward."

The years-long effort to save the ship has brought donations from across the country and from nearly 40 countries. "It's wrenching that despite this support, it's not yet enough," Gibbs said.

The conservancy could envision selling the United States to a new owner, while maintaining an onboard role in telling the historic story of the ship, Gibbs said.

The statement posted online said, "If donors or investors step forward by the end of the month who are ready, willing, and able to help the conservancy, America's flagship could still be saved."

Without that, "we will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible U.S.-based recycler" by Oct. 31.

The conservancy is going ahead with plans for an Oct. 29 fund-raiser at the Union League.

Last year, local businesspeople suggested a plan to turn the ship into a floating hotel, anchored beside the Harrah's casino in Chester. Others said the conservancy has gotten nowhere despite years of effort, and it was time for new owners.

For nearly 20 years, the United States has cast a shadow over Pier 82, moored there after being saved from scrapping and with hopes of a lavish redesign and rebirth.

In its day, the United States was a marvel, both luxury liner and secret weapon: It could quickly be turned into a troop ship able to transport 15,000 soldiers up to 10,000 miles without refueling.

The ship's 1952 maiden voyage shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record, which it still holds. It sailed 400 times from New York to Europe and other destinations, ferrying nobility and immigrants, along with Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

"It's one of a kind, unique on the Earth," Gibbs said. "Hopeful donors, or investors, or political leaders will take notice and help us save our ship."

jgammage@phillynews.com

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@JeffGammage