The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy was towed up the Delaware River yesterday, drawing crowds to waterfront parks and stopping cars on busy I-95.

"Everybody was pulling over and taking pictures, then they would get back in, as I did, and drive a few blocks and pull over again," said Stephanie Peditto, a Department of Homeland Security employee.

She came to see the carrier's arrival out of a deep interest in President Kennedy that led to fascination with the ship named in his honor when it was launched in 1967.

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard has been closed for about a dozen years, but the site remains the only storage facility for inactive deep-water warships on the East Coast; 93 workers maintain the mothballed fleet.

"Big John," as the Kennedy is called, with its 4.6-acre flight deck and six-tugboat escort, was an eye-catching sight coming up the river. Its journey was a complex task for maritime agencies and companies.

Shortly after 3 p.m., as the Kennedy eased alongside Pier 4 at the Navy Yard, Capt. Dave Scott, Coast Guard commander for this region, relaxed for the first time in weeks. Scott and Capt. Michael J. Linton, president of the Pilots' Association for the Bay and River Delaware, have been planning the big ship's move for 18 months.

It took 18 hours to tow the Kennedy across the bay and up the river - more than twice what's required by a cargo ship under its own power. And the long trip had to be coordinated with other traffic on the river to minimize the risk of delays or accidents.

"A lot of people don't realize how important this river is to the nation's economy," Scott said, adding that the river is among the busiest oil ports and where most fresh winter fruit eaten in the Northeast is unloaded.

High winds and rain kept the Kennedy at sea during a two-day delay, but there were periods of sunshine for its upriver journey. Only two cargo ships were delayed briefly. Both were departing from Camden - one carrying scrap metal and the other headed south for another load of Del Monte bananas, Linton said.

The Kennedy, CV-67, is classified "out of commission in reserve." It could, with a year or more of work, return to active duty, said Capt. Dave Tungett, inactive-fleet program manager. He said dehumidifiers would be kept running, water around the hull would be electrically charged to prevent rusting, and the eight four-story-tall steam boilers had been prepared to remain idle without decay.

The attention the Kennedy drew was reminiscent of its arrival Sept. 14, 1993 - for a two-year overhaul that turned out to be the last project of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Back then, politicians who were fighting to save the shipyard donned flight gear and flew by helicopter to ride the Kennedy up the river. U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta, now deceased, welcomed the 3,000-person crew by passing out pretzels on the 1,050-foot flight deck and promising that Philadelphia workers would do a good job modernizing their ship.

The dry dock where the Kennedy was overhauled is now part of the busy Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, which will deliver three civilian tanker ships this year.

Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com.