Small city works to recover warship

Salvage barge Wotan hums night and day with activity

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

NORFOLK, Va. - At night on the Atlantic, a pumpkin half-moon casts the ribs of a giant crane in silhouette as the barge it rests on rocks with the rhythms of the Gulf Stream. Sixteen miles off Cape Hatteras, calm and clear.

The salvage barge Wotan seems a living creature, 300 feet long. Generators constantly hum, TV monitors glow, loudspeakers carry the rasping sounds of breathing: ahh, hahh, ahh, hahh.

On deck is a small city, with sleeping quarters that look like condos three stories high, connected by stairways and catwalks. Day and night shifts mean someone is always sleeping, someone always working.

Down in the cobalt blue of the sea, lights from windows of a diving bell cast a soft glow while men and women bound about like astronauts on some weird moonscape.

These are Navy divers, experts in salvage. They have the exquisitely delicate job this summer of retrieving the turret from the ironclad warship Monitor.

`A little old lady'

"We think of the turret as a little old lady trapped under a building," one of the divers says. "And we're going to get her out safely."

As their metal diving stage descends into the cold ocean, the divers constantly swallow or force air into their inner ears, releasing growing pressure on their eardrums.

"Divers OK?" a voice from above inquires every 10 feet.

"OK," they respond in voices changed by the mix of helium and oxygen that they're breathing. They sound like Donald Duck.

"Both divers OK!"

One hundred, 150, 200 feet. There the stage stops and the divers, tethered to air supplied from the surface, step off and drop down another 40 feet.

They're part of one of the most ambitious deep-water archaeological projects in history and one of the most complicated Navy dive operations ever attempted. Someday they'll be able to say they dove on the Monitor. And helped retrieve its most recognizable feature.

Cameras and lights in the divers' helmets sweep across what looks at first like a dinosaur lying on the bottom, ancient and gray.

A hallowed place

The divers pause. This ship has been called the great-great-grandmother of modern warships. And it's a hallowed place, where sailors like them lost their lives. But they don't linger. There's work to be done.

Even those who don't share that history feel it, too.

Three divers from Britain, brought over on an exchange with their American counterparts, are actively involved. One of them, Sonny Liston - he swears that's his name, even shows it on one of his tattoos - has just returned from a dive.

"It's an honor," he says in a Devon accent with a Scottish twist. "So many American divers would cut their arm off to do this. I've dove all around the world for 21 years, but this rates with one of the best."

On his last trip to the Monitor, Liston swam over and pretended to kiss the turret. Some wonder if the turret smack must now be observed by everyone.

"We have your address," Capt.-select Bobbie Scholley warns him, "and if this kissing gets out of hand, we know where to find you."

"Wait till you get it at the museum," Liston says. "I'll come back and kiss it again."

Shortly after arriving on the barge, the divers and crew had to suspend operations while a storm front barreled through. Winds were clocked at more than 50 mph and seas reached more than 10 feet.

"It's not hard, even sitting on this stable platform, to kind of visualize how bad it got on that ship," Scholley says, thinking of the young men, caught out on the Atlantic, realizing they were in trouble. "It's pretty terrifying sometimes when you see it out here."

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