The submarine went down with all hands lost, and now Mark K. Ragan is in a wet suit and diver's helmet working through the muck and trying to raise the sunken vessel.
No, this isn't one more account of the death of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk and its crew.
Ragan's dive took him into the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Charleston, S.C., to help bring up the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley - the first attack submarine to sink a ship in all the history of naval warfare.
On a moonlit night in February 1864, C.S.S. Hunley speared a torpedo into the U.S. Housatonic, a Union blockade ship, and then detonated a 90-bomb charge. The Union sloop sank in three minutes. Moments later, the Hunley, with its commander, Lt. George E. Dixon, and his eight crewmen, vanished into the sea off Sullivan's Island at the mouth of Charleston harbor.
Ragan believes the concussion from the explosion also sank the Hunley. The sub lay lost in the mud 131 years until an expedition financed by adventure writer Clive Cussler, whose books include "Raise the Titanic," found it in 1995. Cussler launched the project to raise it early this summer.
C.S.S. finally surfaced Aug. 8 at 8:39 a.m. and an armada of boats escorted it back to Charleston as thousands cheered from shore.
Ragan, 44, a Civil War buff from Edgewater, Md., who runs a submarine piloting school in the South River, had signed on the recovery project three months earlier. He says his interest in the Civil War and in submarines brought him inevitably to the Hunley. He's written the definitive history: "The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice and Success in the Civil War," published by Narwhal Press in Charleston. He's now the project historian, literally immersed in the history of the Hunley.
On June 5, he made his first dive to the submarine he has been researching for nearly 15 years.
"Yeah, it was a really big deal for me," he says in his matter-of-fact way. He's sitting on a bench in front of the National Archives in Washington, where he does much of his research.
"We only had 18 inches of visibility that day. I could see the different components, but I couldn't place them all together."
His first dive was put into the log at 2:57 a.m.
"All my dives were between two and five o'clock in the morning and always lasted at least three hours," he says. "On those night dives, I actually had better visibility, up to four feet.
"Those were much more thrilling. There were times I was literally left there by myself, three, four o'clock in the morning.
"You sort of forget you've got nine guys piled up inside this thing with all their possessions," he says. "Things flash into your head. You're testing the hull and there they are right there. I was working down underneath the dive planes, knowing that Dixon was right there next to me.
"When he finally does come out obviously they'll have detailed archeological diagrams of where he was found. It'll be nice to know how far away I was when I knew I was right next to him.
"It was interesting. I had studied this guy and all that. This was the night I couldn't see a damn thing. I was right there touching the diving plane and going underneath the hull and feeling the keel and all that. The diving plane was where Dixon was. The guy was right here. This is where he was."
Ragan has researched the Hunley so long that he claims, "I probably know Dixon better than anybody alive."
Dixon was an engineering officer from Kentucky and Ragan is still searching for relatives and letters that might give him even more insight into the man who commanded the Hunley.
Ragan was a computer programmer at the Small Business Administration, almost directly across the National Mall, when he first became interested in the Hunley. He'd walk across the Mall to do research during his lunch hour.
He concedes a certain Southern drift in his Hunley book. His great-great-grandfather, John W. Ragan, went off to war with the Tennessee Militia and never returned. The book is dedicated to him.
"Today, I'm fishing," he says at the Archives. He's researching the Confederate engineering corps for information about the group that built the Hunley. "I came up with basically little doodads. This afternoon I'll go through Alabama records. It was built in Mobile. It was brought on flatcars by train [to Charleston]."
He contends the Hunley is a much more sophisticated vessel than historians had thought.
"The old locomotive boiler thing which historians have talked about, that's hogwash now," Ragan says of the notion that its makers patched two locomotive boilers together. "You can actually see countersink holes just to make the hull smooth as possible.
"This was so technologically advanced it just can't be ignored," Ragan says. "This is one thing we were just sort of shaking our heads at. This wasn't built by a bunch of buck-toothed hillbillies. This is hard-core engineers and artisans who built this thing."