Navy dives to save history

Recovery: A crew prepares to raise the turret of the ironclad USS Monitor, which helped save the Union during the Civil War.

July 14, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

HATTERAS, N.C. - Just after midnight on the last day of 1862, the U.S. Navy's famed ironclad warship, the USS Monitor, foundered while under tow in a storm off Cape Hatteras.

Sea water poured in under the ship's 22-foot-wide rotating gun turret. It doused the ship's boilers, silenced its steam engine and stilled its pumps. The Monitor - veteran of the historic clash with the Confederate ironclad Merrimac 10 months earlier - was sinking, and its sailors were scrambling to escape their iron coffin before it plunged 220 feet to the bottom.

Forty-nine of the Monitor's crew were saved that night. But the remains of 16 others, and their ship, have rested on the sea floor for 140 years, embraced by sand and silt, and guarded by sharks and moray eels.

Now, another generation of American sailors has returned to the wreck. Their mission: to recover the Monitor's turret, its guns, and any human remains it might still shelter.

Working 24 hours a day from a barge anchored over the site, Navy divers have already cut the turret free of 45 tons of deck iron and timber that covered it. On Friday, while vacuuming sand and silt from the turret's interior, they uncovered the first of the Monitor's two cannons.

By month's end, if all goes well, they expect to raise the turret - 130 tons of Baltimore iron - and send it to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va. The museum already holds the Monitor's anchor, propeller, steam engines and other objects recovered since its resting place was found in 1974.

Ship, remains respected

The $7 million cost of this year's expedition will be paid by the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the museum.

"NOAA realized the Monitor was dissolving and was about to collapse completely," said museum spokesman Justin Lyons. "As historically important as the ship is, they saw it was important to recover as much of the Monitor as could be recovered."

Navy divers on the 300-foot barge Wotan express only respect for the old warship - for the stubborn integrity of its armor and for its sanctity as a war grave.

"We [divers] spend a lot of time in the Navy doing recovery of fallen sailors and pilots, and in a way we're doing the same things" on the Monitor, said Rick Cavey, 38, of Columbia, Howard County, the Navy project diving officer on the Wotan.

"If we do find sailors down there, we will be returning them for a proper burial - 140 years late. Those men were heroes. ... They were part of the people who kept the Union together."

The Wotan is an island of steel anchored in cobalt-blue water, 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, just out of sight of land.

As long as a football field, it is dominated by an immense red crane capable of lifting 500 tons from the sea floor. The remaining space is crowded with portable offices, control rooms and machinery, compression chambers and trailer-like living quarters stacked three high. They're home to the 64 Navy divers on board and other personnel - more than 100 in all.

Generators and compressors create a constant din. Burly divers who aren't in the water or performing topside chores are likely to be sunning themselves or lifting weights. It is an overwhelmingly male place commanded by one of the Navy's few female diving officers, Cmdr. Barbara "Bobbie" Scholley.

"This is a large-scale, complex, deep dive for us, and we don't get that very often," she said, adding that the training is invaluable.

Cavey, the diver from Maryland, said the assignment is a privilege for his men. "They're walking where no sailor has walked for 140 years," he said. "It makes a lot of the guys feel really proud of being on this expedition."

Because of the great depth and pressure on the sea floor, divers descending directly from the Wotan can work for just 40 minutes on the bottom before returning to the surface.

To extend the work time on the bottom, others - called "saturation" divers - descend in pairs in an 8-foot-diameter diving bell. On the bottom, each man swims from the bell and spends six hours working on the wreck. At night, they're guided by helmet lights.

After 12 hours, they're hauled back to the surface in the bell, still at a pressure equivalent to the sea floor. They're transferred to pressurized chambers on the Wotan, where they will spend the next 12 hours. While they sleep, eat and shower, a second team replaces them on the bottom.

The cycle repeats every 12 hours for 10 to 14 days before the divers can finally decompress - a 70-hour process.

On July 5, divers using high-pressure water jets and metal saws finished cutting away the iron plates and pine deck timbers that still lay atop the capsized Monitor's turret. Since then, they have been slowly vacuuming sand and silt from the turret's interior, carefully sifting the debris for artifacts, sailors' belongings and possible human remains.

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