Stunned archaeologists found significant additional evidence of human remains inside the gun turret of the USS Monitor on Wednesday, raising the number of victims found inside the recently recovered Civil War artifact from one to two, with the strong possibility of confirming a third within a few hours.
The discovery came less than a day after the joint Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration left the wreck site off Cape Hatteras, N.C., and began the 157-mile journey to Hampton Roads, where the revolutionary ironclad warship made naval history on March 9, 1862, in its momentous battle with the CSS Virginia.
"We talked it over, and we decided that we needed to get in as soon as we could instead of waiting," said chief scientist John Broadwater of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
"It was certainly unexpected that we'd find so much additional evidence right away. But I guess it shouldn't have been. There may be even more remains as we continue to work."
Broadwater entered one of the turret's hatches just before 2 p.m., accompanied by sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston and Wayne Lusardi, conservator at The Mariners' Museum.
Wearing protective coveralls and rubber boots, the trio worked on their hands and knees in the muck-filled, 9-foot-tall turret for nearly five hours. But they discovered the first evidence of additional remains within minutes of beginning the excavation.
One victim was found near the location of a nearly complete skeleton exposed and then recovered by Navy divers while the turret was still underwater. The second possible evidence of human remains was uncovered about 15 feet away in another section of the 20-foot-wide cylinder.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Broadwater said, emerging from the turret for a momentary break late in the afternoon.
"Many of the remains are very firmly concreted to the roof of the turret," he added later. "We're going to have a difficult time getting them out."
In addition to uncovering human remains, the trio found a well-preserved US Navy overcoat button and a pocketknife - the knife in a fragment that appeared to be a pants pocket. They also discovered an empty leather boot in a nearby section of the turret.
"We're really hoping that the knife has some initials on it," Broadwater said.
"It would really be a big help in getting an identification."
The intensive excavation took place despite some initial concern about the stability of the two 15,750-pound cannons that were recovered and rigged inside the turret.
Rough seas and a sustained 30-mph wind had pummeled the expedition's Manson Gulf barge since late Tuesday night, just hours after the crew weighed the last of eight anchors and began pulling away after six weeks of round-the-clock work.
The northerly swells rolling in against the bow of the barge surged as high as 8 feet, splashing white water over the forward deck.
The deteriorating conditions on the surface followed those found on the bottom earlier Tuesday, when two Navy divers attempting to retrieve the expedition's tools were battered by a ripping, 3-knot current.
"It was like being in the desert in a windstorm," said Master Diver Scott Heineman, who was forced to use his knife to crawl along the bottom.
"They were the worst conditions I've seen in five years of diving here. We were horizontal."
Not long after Heineman and Gunners Mate Roman Mersino returned, one of the propellers on the tugboat Delta Force fouled, delaying the expedition's attempt to get away before the arrival of the advancing weather front.
Two other divers spent more than two hours unraveling and cutting away a stubborn knot of 17/8-inch-thick wire rope.
The repairs proved to be essential after the front arrived, forcing the divers, barge crew and archaeologists to retreat from an awards ceremony being held on the barge's rooftop helicopter pad.
Though the rain subsided quickly, the seas began to grow, driving off a pod of porpoises that had been playing in the wake of the barge.
By late afternoon Wednesday, as the archaeologists worked in the turret, the 300-foot-long Wotan and its historic cargo had endured nearly 24 hours of deck-banging pitch and roll.
"Looks like old King Neptune's not ready to give the turret up," Heineman said.
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or online at firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times