Navy divers on sacred quest

Mission: 16 sailors died when the Monitor went down, and their brothers in arms say, "That's the Navy down there. I feel like we belong."

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

NORFOLK, Va. - Dawn on the Wotan, a monster barge out on the Atlantic, its four corners anchored to the bottom by thick cables.

A team of Navy divers gathers at the edge of the barge, near the middle.

The Navy diving community is a macho world, peopled by brawny men with tattoos on calves and biceps. One T-shirt asserts that there are two kinds of women: those who have divers and those who want divers.

Into this world strides Capt.-select Bobbie Scholley, coffee mug in hand, thin black wet suit zipped up, reddish brown hair firmly tied back by a band.

She steps into a black and red rubber suit and dons a heavy yellow helmet that tenders snap into place. They begin attaching a tightly wrapped coil of hoses: blue for depth, yellow for mixed gas, small red for communications with the surface, large red for warm water that will be pumped throughout her suit, orange for lights and camera.

Scholley has been diving ever since she talked her submarine bosses into sending her to dive school 19 years ago. She now runs MDSU Two, the elite Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two at Little Creek and is in charge of Navy operations on the barge.

Worldwide mission

These are divers who, at a moment's notice, go anyplace in the world if an American plane or ship goes down. Often, as they did with TWA Flight 800, the plane that exploded and dropped into the ocean off Long Island, and with the suicide bombing of the destroyer Cole, they're the ones who find and retrieve the bodies.

This summer, their mission is to dive on the Monitor.

Scholley feels a real kinship with the 16 Navy sailors who went down with that ship all those years ago.

"It happens every time you go down," she said two days earlier. "You get that feeling, kind of like you're walking on a battlefield from the Civil War."

She's "Red," the lead diver this morning. On the chair beside her in the "Green" position is master diver Brick Bradford. A third, standby diver, who will go in the water only if there's trouble, is fully suited up and ready.

She reaches into a vest pocket and retrieves a pair of blue-and-white gloves. She's ready.

Red and Green signal OK.

Chief Petty Officer Steve Janek begins the chant: "Divers up and over!"

"Divers up and over!" the tenders, communications and life support people shout back, and the divers are quickly gone beneath the waves.

As they reach 20 feet, they open valves to flush out surface air filling their helmets and support lines. A cloud of blue-green bubbles rises to the surface. Then they close the valves and a mix of helium and oxygen is pumped through the hoses.

Immediately, their vocal cords constrict.

That's a signal that the gas mix, designed to avoid "nitrogen narcosis," a drunken state at great depths, is working.

Down they go

Down they go into the abyss, cameras noting bubbles rising from their vents, speakers sounding out their rasping breaths.

At about 100 feet, a barracuda lurks nearby. When they reach 200 feet, the platform stops, both divers step off and float to the wreck.

"It's kind of like you're walking on clouds down there," Scholley said earlier. "Although you have this incredible drag on you from the current and the umbilical. Your very heavy helmet and suit become neutrally buoyant. I find it very comfortable and very serene."

This morning's job is to remove debris near the turret and retrieve artifacts. Her gloved hands paw through the rubble. An eel scoots out of the way.

Then she moves toward the cavity left when the engine was removed last year. She's looking for a place to run a cable through that will help saw away part of the wreck lying on the turret, but finds none. They'll have to punch a hole there, she realizes.

Their 30 minutes on the bottom is quickly up, and they return to the stage. Everything OK? Janek asks.

OK, they both report.

"Hoo yah!" he announces.

"Hoo yah," they reply.

On the surface again, after hours of decompression, she reflects on her visit.

She did not feel like an intruder, she says.

"I don't because I'm a sailor and that's the Navy down there. I feel like we belong."

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