Navy divers try rescue ironclad

Sunday, July 21, 2002

OFF CAPE HATTERAS, N.C. -- Cradled in a hammock 200 feet below the water's surface, Navy diver Rusty Deen has little to do for the next five hours but read and stare into the cobalt-blue hole below his feet.

Some of the men bring books down to the diving bell with them to help pass the time. For his dive, Deen has chosen "Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History." It is an apt choice.

For the better part of a week, Deen and three others have been living at bottom pressure, rotating between the steel bell, the ocean floor and a 20-by-6 1/2-foot decompression chamber on the deck of a barge anchored over the wreck of the USS Monitor.

Working in pairs, in 12-hour shifts, the divers are in a race against time and the weather to retrieve the coral-encrusted, revolving iron gun turret that revolutionized naval warfare and helped make wooden battleships obsolete overnight. After five years of salvage, it is the last big piece of the Monitor awaiting rescue from the waters 17 miles off Cape Hatteras, an area known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic."

Hovering with his book 24 feet above the wreck, Deen is helping to write the fabled ship's final chapter.

"It's almost like uncovering a grave," he says, his voice pinched to a Chipmunk-like squeak by the helium-rich atmosphere he's breathing. "I've been in the Navy for 22 years, and I feel like I'm uncovering my shipmates."

Sank in 1862

The Monitor's life was short but eventful.

Derisively called a "cheesebox on a raft," the Monitor had its first and only battle soon after its launch in 1862. The four-hour engagement with the Confederate ironclad Merrimack ended in a draw, but the age of iron warships had been born.

Under tow southward after being resupplied, the Monitor sank New Year's Eve 1862 in a gale off the North Carolina coast. For the four officers and 12 crewmen who perished, the turret was their final refuge.

In 1973, researchers discovered the wreck, which had become a haven for fish and coral in an otherwise barren stretch. Two years later, it became the country's first national marine sanctuary.

During the past five years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has worked with the Navy and the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va., to raise and preserve the Monitor's unique features. Last year, workers salvaged the ship's 35-ton steam engine.

The $6.5 million cost of recovering the turret will be paid by the Navy, NOAA and the museum.

"This is the first revolving gun turret in the history of the world," says Jeff Johnston, programs specialist for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. "We've GOT to save this thing."

Sprint diving

Held in place by eight 10-ton anchors, the Derrick Barge Wotan -- 90 feet wide and as long as a football field -- hovers over the wreck site. Its deck is a constant cacophony of roaring engines and hissing gas lines.

Toward the bow, pairs of yellow-helmeted divers are lowered over the side on a metal stage, trailing a licorice-twist of colored umbilical hoses that deliver oxygen, helium and warm water.

During the past five years, much of the mapping and stabilization of the wreck has been done by these "sprint divers" -- so-called because they can only remain on the bottom for about a half hour. For each half hour of work in the water, the divers must decompress for up to two and a half hours to avoid the crippling and sometimes fatal bends.

But this mission requires hours of tedious dredging to remove 140 years of gray silt, branch coral, shells and even spilled coal from the 9-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide turret. Too much weight, and the turret's roof might collapse and spill its contents.

The dredging work must be done gingerly to preserve any artifacts that might be inside -- including, possibly, the remains of crew members. Then, a specially designed, eight-legged steel claw called the "spider" must be rigged to the 150-ton turret and its twin 17,000-pound cannons so they can be hoisted to the surface.

That work requires a team of "saturation" divers who will live at bottom pressure for a week or more at a time and work around the clock.

For these veteran divers who have recovered bodies after the Flight 800 crash off Long Island, N.Y., and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, this mission provides valuable training. And with a 45-day window rapidly closing and the worst of hurricane season on the horizon, there is no time to lose.

"Without the saturation divers, there's no way we would ever accomplish this in one season," Johnston says. "They've been a godsend."

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