HATTERAS, N.C. - Navy divers running short of time, money and favorable weather gingerly lifted the 120-ton turret of the USS Monitor from the Atlantic yesterday, salvaging a chapter of naval history.
Rusty, covered with barnacles and still sporting the dents inflicted by Confederate shells during its only battle 140 years ago, the Monitor's massive iron turret was lifted from the sea shortly before sunset.
It was greeted with waves of exultant cheers from more than 100 Navy divers who had worked six weeks to salvage the massive Civil War relic.
"For a bunch of pretty tough Navy divers, there was an awful lot of cheering and hugging going on," said Navy Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley on the deck of the recovery barge Wotan 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
John Broadwater, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official who had worked for years to save the vessel, rapped on the turret and found it solid, despite the years submerged. "The damage appears to be minimal," he said.
Standing beneath the twin gunports of the ironclad's rotating turret, the first incorporated into a fighting ship, Broadwater said he was gratified at the success of the $6.5 million turret-recovery project: "This turret is absolutely priceless."
In addition to the Monitor's 11-inch cannons, the turret is partially filled with sediment. Broadwater said the interior might contain additional human remains, beyond the skeleton already discovered by divers.
The climax of six weeks of intensive, round-the-clock salvage and recovery efforts concluded yesterday after two days of delays caused by shifting currents, 6-foot seas, and 20-mph winds.
First to come into view was a flag that had been planted by Navy divers - a replica of the 1862 U.S. flag the Monitor was flying when it sank in a storm on New Year's Eve 1962. By the time the turret itself emerged, a cascade of seawater gushing from its open hatches, there wasn't a dry eye on the deck.
"I'm glad I was wearing sunglasses so the men couldn't see me cry," Scholley confessed.
The final effort to raise the turret began before dawn as sailors, frustrated by two days of fickle winds and currents, decided to take their chances with less-than-perfect conditions.
The first step was rigging a massive sling and shackles to the lifting device - the spider and claw - that would cradle the turret during its 220-foot journey to the surface.
"You're fighting me all the way," diver Keith Nelson muttered through the Navy communication system as he struggled against an unrelenting current to attach one of 100-pound shackles in the lifting frame.
"It's like having six invisible people pushing against you," explained diver Steve Janek.
Once the lines were secured, the turret was gently lifted just a few feet off the bottom and positioned on a nearby pallet that was designed to keep its contents - a sediment-filled time capsule of the Monitor's final minutes - from spilling out during the ascent.
So much time under water has made the Monitor vulnerable to the surface environment. To arrest any deterioration in the open air, it will be bathed in saltwater spray during the final seagoing leg of a journey to a Newport News, Va., museum.
"We'd like to get out of here," said Scholley. "There's a storm coming through."
After 140 years on the ocean floor, the final leg of the Monitor's long journey will take it to the place where, in March 1862, it fought its history-making - and only - battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, the former Merrimack.