Recovery near for Monitor's 150-ton turret

Navy divers employ latest underwater technology in the effort this summer

August 04, 2002|By Edward Collimore | Edward Collimore,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - In the last frightening moments, the sailors mounted the gun turret of the famed Civil War ship and waited for rescue while mountainous waves crashed around them and the deck heaved beneath their feet.

Many crewmen leaped from their perch to bobbing longboats. Some missed and drowned. Then, at 1 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1862, the ship's red-and-white lantern lights disappeared in the roiling Atlantic Ocean off Hatteras, N.C.

"The Monitor is no more," wrote survivor William F. Keeler. "What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished."

For 140 years, the innovative ironclad - made famous by its battle against the armored Confederate vessel Virginia - has been entombed more than 240 feet underwater in an eerie, lunar-like landscape, bathed in a haunting blue light.

But this summer, its turret - the Monitor's familiar icon - will rise from the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" in a $6.5 million recovery effort employing divers, salvors and the latest underwater technologies, said officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Navy, and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.

The 160-ton revolving gun emplacement and two 11-inch cannons will be brought up from the dimly lit ocean floor, and gently lowered onto the derrick barge Wotan.

The Wotan, about the size of a football field, arrived over the wreck site June 25, and divers began assessing the Monitor's condition and the work that laid ahead.

`I am very excited'

"I am very excited," said John D. Broadwater, manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, as the wreck site is known, who will be living on the barge for the next six to eight weeks. "It's quite an operation, the biggest we have conducted at the Monitor."

After a decades-long debate over disturbing the final resting place of 16 crewmen, the turret's emergence from the water - probably in the next few days - will be both solemn and joyous for marine archaeologists, Civil War buffs and historians.

The remains of the four officers and 12 sailors may still be inside the silt-filled turret, and legend has it that the skeleton of a cat may be found in one of the cannons. A sailor reportedly sheltered the ship's howling mascot inside the gun barrel.

The turret will be taken to the Mariners' Museum, where it will be placed in a 34-foot-wide octagonal holding tank, desalinized and restored over several years before its permanent display in the museum's new $30 million USS Monitor Center, set to open in 2007.

`It's really phenomenal'

"For a maritime museum, something like the gun turret of the Monitor - this legendary ship of history - comes along once in an institutional lifetime like King Tut's tomb," said John Hightower, president of the Mariners' Museum. "It's really phenomenal.

"Think of how it affected history. Four days after the battle [with the Virginia], there was a directive sent out by the London admiralty saying there will be no more wooden ships built for the British Navy." Wooden vessels were clearly outmatched by the ironclads.

Most ambitious project

Though the Monitor's steam engine, propeller, anchor, lantern and numerous bottles have been recovered since the wreck was discovered in 1973, retrieving the turret is most ambitious and difficult project yet.

"The first thing we have to do is extricate the turret" from beneath the hull, which is lying overturned on top of it, said Broadwater, the marine sanctuary manager who also is a diver and archaeologist.

The Monitor was launched in 1862 to counter the Virginia, formerly the Union vessel Merrimack. The two ironclads battled for four hours at Hampton Roads, Va., in the first fight between metal-covered vessels. Their confrontation ended in a draw, but the Confederate challenge had been met, and the Monitor returned North for repairs.

On its trip back to the South, under tow of the Rhode Island, it encountered a terrific storm on Dec. 30. It was pummeled by massive waves until its bilge pump could no longer stay ahead of the water rushing in.

"Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on top of the turret, stood with a mass of sinking iron beneath them," survivor Keeler wrote.

The ironclad sank on New Year's Eve, apparently going down stern first, then turning over as it dropped. It hit bottom with such force that the turret was sheared off and trapped under the vessel. "We will remove that part of the hull that is resting on the turret," said Broadwater.

Divers have various cutting tools, including saws and a hydro-blaster, a high-pressure stream of water that can cut through metal, Broadwater said. The work will take a couple of weeks.

"We still have to remove the sediment from the turret to lighten the load," he said. "We have a claw-like, lifting frame - unofficially known as the Spider - that fits over it and has arms that reach underneath."

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