The $7.1 million effort to raise the USS Monitor's gun turret reached an important milestone this weekend.
Late Friday afternoon, Navy divers and their colleagues on the surface were preparing to remove a 40-ton piece of the vessel's massive armor belt. With that and nearby sections of hull and deck removed, the recovery team will have access to the ultimate prize: the turret that helped change the face of naval warfare.
Last week divers cut and set aside pieces of steel plating, wooden deck planks and wooden beams to free up the length of armor belt near the turret. As of Friday evening, crews were hoping to remove the 40-foot section within a matter of hours.
"We couldn't do anything with the turret until these sections were removed," said John Broadwater, head of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary team supervising the project. "This is a major milestone."
Progress was made possible by calm weather, never a given at the wreck site 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. "We think this is pretty significant," said Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit #2, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base group spearheading the Navy's project. "The weather is really being good to us."
Even so, last week's work was fraught with danger for the expedition's team of 80 divers, Scholley said. Using sophisticated cutting tools at depths of 240 feet involves serious risks. So does carrying away 10- to 12-foot sections of aged wood and metal. All the while, divers had to keep in mind that the structure of the 178-foot-long wreck could shift or collapse as pieces were removed. "We don't want anything to fall on top of the divers," Scholley said. "So far, we've been very careful and very lucky."
Last week's work revealed that some areas of the wreck are in better condition than experts had predicted.
"You go to one area, touch it and it crumbles away before your eyes. But other parts are as solid as the day it was built," said Jeff Johnston, historian for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
Divers found portions of the wood difficult to slice through. "This waterlogged wood is like a really tough sponge," Johnston said.
"That's been the difficult part - getting through this 140-year-old good wood."
The USS Monitor, a revolutionary ironclad vessel, sunk Dec. 30, 1862. It landed upside down on the ocean floor, making the wreck initially harder to identify and making the detached turret more difficult to extract.
While the expedition's divers have been working around the clock, they took time Wednesday to mark the Fourth of July - 40 fathoms under the sea.
Divers unfurled an American flag and stretched it across the Monitor's famous turret. "Everybody's feeling a little more patriotic than in past years," Scholley said. "We had a nice impromptu ceremony. It was really special."
Sam McDonald can be reached at 247-4732 or by e-mail at email@example.com