Diving deep requires superb training, support

Expedition's director is a longtime authority on marine archaeology

August 04, 2002|By Paul Clancy | Paul Clancy,THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

NORFOLK, Va. - On a sultry day in midsummer, John D. Broadwater dons a headset in a small control shack as Navy divers lower themselves into the turret of the Monitor.

Just days before, a huge crane had lifted a 32-ton piece of the famous ship's deck and armor plating off the turret, exposing it for the first time in 140 years.

The rasping, metallic sound of the divers' breaths fills the shack.

"If you can get in closer and get a little more detail, it would be helpful," he tells one of the divers carrying a video camera.

"Wow!" Broadwater exclaims as the camera reveals the underside of the powerful cannons that landed on the roof of the turret as the ironclad Monitor flipped upside down and crashed to the ocean floor in 1862.

"Oh yeah, Green," he says to the diver in the secondary - or "green" - position. "That's a good shot of the wheel and carriage.

"Neat!"

The closing days

These are the closing days of the most important treasure hunt in Broadwater's career. If all goes well, the signature piece of the "cheese box on a raft" will rise to the surface of the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Hatteras in the next few days.

The soft-spoken Kentuckian is manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and head of the recovery project. Every decision that relates to the care of the artifacts - and especially the big prize, the turret - is his to make.

Broadwater came to the profession by way of engineering and a job that allowed him to scuba-dive on wrecks at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. It led to a book, Shipwrecks of Kwajalein, and eventually to a doctorate in maritime studies.

Broadwater spent 10 years helping excavate a British Revolutionary War-era ship, the Betsy, near Yorktown, Va., served as the state's official underwater archaeologist, then head of the sanctuary.

If there were any justice, he'd be down there now with the divers, salvaging pieces of history. Diving that deep, to 240 feet, is rare, requiring superb training and support - one of the reasons the Monitor was relatively intact when it was discovered in 1973.

But Broadwater has done it many times, beginning with a survey team in 1979.

That, he says, was an amazing experience, seeing the Monitor at eye level and wondering if parts of it could one day be saved.

He continued to dive through the early efforts to stabilize the wreck. But in 1998, while assisting on the work that brought up the ship's propeller, he suffered inner-ear damage from expanding nitrogen bubbles and was benched by doctors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He'll still be at the grand finale, but on deck.

"To see that come up, all intact, and set down on the deck of the barge - I think a lot of us are going to consider that a major day in our lives," he said recently.

`A real good feeling'

"The icing on the cake is we're saving parts of the wreck so millions of people, instead of a handful of divers, will get to see them. It's a real good feeling. A real good feeling."

Broadwater's archaeological juices are flowing. The Monitor's guns will be seen for the first time since the ship went down. The turret, accounts suggest, is where crew members gathered when all seemed lost on the last voyage. They brought along their sea bags, thinking at first they would them save them - sea bags loaded with clothes, pictures of their families and other precious items - then realizing they couldn't save all of that and themselves, too.

"All of that may still be in there," says Broadwater, standing at the rail of the barge, so close to where the sailors of the Monitor once stood.

Another Navy, another century, a time of divers breathing compressed gas, dropping down into the deep ocean, of archaeologists yearning to see and touch what is now a hallowed piece of American history.

This deck is a 300-foot barge that a global positioning system has placed almost directly above where the Monitor's hulk lies.

There's no signal from below, just hard silence.

"Red, are you OK?" an anxious chief warrant officer, Rick Cavey, asks into his headset.

The two divers were moving a large timber and one of them gasped in pain. Now there's no sound, only the sight of bubbles on the monitor.

The standby diver tenses. He might have to get down there fast.

Again, Cavey asks for Red's condition.

Finally, Red responds: "OK."

`Both divers OK'

"Both divers OK," Cavey reports.

There's a palpable sense of relief in the control shack.

Two divers have crawled through the portal of a chamber that will put them under deep-ocean pressure so they can spend several days working on the bottom.

Broadwater pokes his head into the opening before the portal shuts. "Have a good one," he says with a puckish grin, "but just remember: Jeff and I will be watching you every moment."

By now, after five years of working on the wreck, the divers don't have to be told to treat the Monitor artifacts like treasured gems. But it's a standing joke how Broadwater and historian Jeff Johnston will fuss at the divers if they don't.

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