Navy divers have uncovered what could be human remains inside the historic gun turret of the USS Monitor.
Twelve crewmen and four officers perished when the famous Civil War ship went down off Cape Hatters, N.C., in a Dec. 31, 1862, storm. But Friday's discovery, which took place during an expedition to recover the turret, produced the first evidence that the stricken ironclad had carried one of the victims to the bottom.
"In order to get out, you had to crawl through the turret," said archaeologist John Broadwater, head of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary team that is guiding the Navy divers, during a telephone conference from the expedition's barge.
"It must have been a terrible death for anyone trapped in there."
The tragic discovery took place shortly after 9 a.m. Friday as a Navy diver sifted through the silt that fills the 9-foot-deep, upside-down turret.
Working about two feet from the roof of the turret, which lies buried in the ocean floor, the diver began uncovering such artifacts as partially decayed pieces of fabric and wooden gunnery tools. Then, while clearing the sediment near one of the Monitor's 15,750-pound cannons, he exposed two fragments of what could be human bones.
The smallest element measures about 6 to 7 inches in length, while the largest is about 10 to 11 inches, said Eric Emery, a field archaeologist from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, who was on board to supervise the recovery of any human remains.
Both pieces appear too big to have come from an animal, including the cat that a surviving crew member claimed to have stuffed inside one of the Monitor's guns as he clambered from the sinking ship.
Once recovered from the bottom, the fragments will be stored in water and placed in a refrigerated, darkened environment on the expedition barge to prevent deterioration.
Then they'll be transported to the Army lab in Hawaii for a battery of forensic tests, including examinations that could provide clues about the victim's height, weight and age in addition to confirming whether the bones are human.
The recovery itself could take several days, however, as the divers and archaeologists struggle to record every shred of information that could help identify the remains. Uniform buttons, ID tags and other clues could be found in the sediment, providing valuable information about the victim.
"We're taking the excavation very slowly," Broadwater said. "We're mapping and surveying everything we find."
Friday's discovery came after more than a month of work in which more than 100 Navy divers, spearheaded by Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two from Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, have labored around-the-clock to recover the Monitor's turret.
In addition to excavating inside the giant iron artifact, the divers placed a 29-ton, eight-legged lifting frame around the turret's exterior on July 17, and they have struggled since then to make sure that the massive steel rig is positioned within a few inches of its optimum target.
"We knew this was going to take some time - that it wouldn't happen overnight - and that things would come up that we couldn't predict," said Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of MDSU2, during an earlier phone interview Friday.
"This is not an easy job."
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at email@example.com