Historic USS Monitor turret raised

The silt-packed turret of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor was raised today from the Atlantic floor, nearly 140 years after the historic warship sank during a New Year’s storm.

The turret, on which hung an American flag, was raised at the end of a heavy cable attached to a crane on a 300-foot work barge.

Crews aboard the barge whistled and cheered as the coral-encrusted turret was raised. Water poured from the turret as it hung over the ocean before being swung onto the barge.

The turret was raised during a $6.5 million expedition by the U.S. Navy, led by a dive team from Little Creek Amphibious Base in Norfolk, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which controls the underwater sanctuary where the wreckage is.

The Monitor, a Union ship, and the Confederate vessel CSS Virginia revolutionized naval warfare when they fought to a draw on March 9, 1862, near Newport News.

Dents from that last battle are visible on the Monitor’s revolving cylindrical turret, a naval innovation that allowed the crew to maneuver out of harm’s way while maintaining accurate fire by adjusting it.

Crews on the barge first expected to see the turret Saturday. But weather topside and current below the waves kept divers from entering the water to attach 100-pound shackles to the claw-like lifting device that had been bolted to the turret.

As the turret was slowly winched to the surface, the wind blew under a partly cloudy sky and whitecaps dotted the seas.

A scheduled 4 p.m. lift deadline passed as the dive team worked on re-rigging the assembly.

At about 1:15 p.m., Navy divers working with Monitor National Marine Sanctuary archeologists lifted the turret about 5 feet in preparation for placing the massive 120-ton artifact and its steel lifting frame onto a support platform.

Rough seas and strong currents dogged the recovery effort Sunday, slowing Navy divers in their attempt to retrieve the historic, 120-ton artifact from the wreck of the famous Civil War vessel.

Late Sunday, the National Weather Service was predicting that the Gulf Stream waters in which the expedition barge is moored could see 15-foot seas and 30-knot winds by the end of Tuesday.

The treacherous conditions prevented the divers from entering 240-foot-deep waters off Cape Hatteras until late afternoon Sunday. They also delayed the deployment of the massive steel-beam and wire-rope rigging that will be used to pull the gun turret, a 21-ton lifting frame and 16-ton support platform from the bottom.

"We're just going to have to sit and watch the currents and the seas," said Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base group that is leading the Navy's efforts.

"And we have to be prepared to move one step at a time when we can."

The joint Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition is scheduled to end Friday -- when its $7.1 million budget runs out. No decision has been made yet on funding an extension.

The expedition's leaders were preparing to exploit whatever opening the weather might offer -- even if it means attempting to make the demanding 250-ton lift at night.

"It's either hit or miss now," said John Broadwater, chief scientist of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

"We don't want to wait and then find out that we should have gone earlier."

Under ideal conditions, the lift would take place in calm seas, with no more than one foot of vertical fluctuation as the turret, its contents - including two 15,750-pound cannon -- and the lift assembly rose from the bottom.

But it could be possible to create an acceptable scenario by facing the bow of the 300-foot-long barge into the wind -- thereby reducing its rolling motion -- and waiting for the seas to lull.

"Weight is not the problem. It's the dynamic situation," said Williamsburg engineer Jim Kelly, who works for Phoenix International, the Navy's diving services and underwater search and recovery contractor.

"Because of the height of the crane, any motion here on the barge is going to be multiplied on the bottom."

Such maneuvers became increasingly complicated Sunday afternoon as the crew of the derrick barge Wotan ran up against the limit of their 8-point mooring. Forced to rotate to the southeast because of changing weather patterns, they had to begin repositioning each of the anchors with the help of a tugboat about 5:30 p.m.

The time-consuming reconfiguration was expected take about 4 to 6 hours but provided no guarantee that the divers and NOAA archaeologists would be able to continue their work.

"I've been down this road before - and it didn't end well," said Broadwater, recalling the struggle of a previous expedition.

"But we don't have any choice."

Despite the conditions, archaeologist Eric Emery managed to leave the barge early Sunday, transferring a collection of skeletal remains recovered last week to the mainland.

Packed in ice and insulated containers, they will be transported as soon as possible to Hawaii, where they will undergo extensive analysis at the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory.

On the barge late Sunday, the day-shift diving crew stood at their stations -- watching the waves -- prepared to enter the water as soon as needed. Then they were dismissed with the order to remain ready.

"I don't know if this is going to happen today. I don't know if this is going to happen tomorrow," Master Diver Jim Mariano told them.

"But when this is over, the whole world is going to want to be a Navy deep-sea diver -- and you guys are going to be able to say you were there.

"Keep the faith."

Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or online at merickson@dailypress.com

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