Breaking the grip of the armor belt

Above: A surface-supplied dive team is hauled from the Atlantic after returning from work on the wreck of the Monitor.
Steve Helber/AP
Trapped between the ocean floor and a ponderous, upside-down hull, the gun turret of the USS Monitor was one of the most dangerous and inaccessible parts of the wreck. Though divers and archaeologists spent two hard summers removing a 35-ton steam engine that blocked their path, they still faced a massive obstacle as the 2002 expedition began.

ACROSS THE DECK OF THE DERRICK BARGE WOTAN, a scattered grid of portable diesel generators throbs in the early morning sun.

Thousands of watts of electricity surge from this web of muffled sound, driving pumps, compressors, winches, tuggers and cutting torches as well as a Remotely Operated Vehicle that works down in the water. They also supply the juice for many of the video screens that flicker all over this huge, bustling vessel.

Just past midships on the port side of the barge, the surface-supplied dive station swarms with two dozen sailors, each intent on a particular task as they prepare to send a pair of shipmates to the bottom. Two master divers look on for a moment, then step into the faint light of the adjacent communications van, where they stare at blurry images of the USS Monitor streaming up from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean some 240 feet below.

A few yards aft of this busy, blue-canopied work area, the two-story framework of the saturation diving station pushes up from the rail. Inside the dimly lit control room at the top, Navy diving supervisor Capt. Chris Murray and a master diver scan another battery of video screens, their gazes trained on a second team of sailors who have descended in a diving bell.

Not much farther toward the stern -- and in toward the middle of the barge -- squats the stubby, corrugated-metal cube of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration van. The air conditioner here growls incessantly as historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary sits inside -- his feet propped up on the counter -- and lays yet another set of eyes on the footage from the wreck.

The images from the Remotely Operated Vehicle, which roosts on top of the Monitor's mammoth armor belt, roll across his split-screen television in a steady, easily decipherable fashion. But the feed from the sat diver's helmet camera mimics every movement of his head, twitching around like a bad home movie. Tracking this jittery visual stream is no easy task. Yet already the bleary-eyed Johnston has been at it for nearly seven hours.

Outside the historian's door, Chief Warrant Officer Rick Cavey and Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley approach each other from opposite ends of the barge, their black combat boots, olive-drab shorts, Navy-blue T-shirts and sun-tanned skin framed boldly against the white metal decking. They meet and talk earnestly for a few moments, bob their heads in agreement and continue on their patrols, with Scholley leaving her diving officer hard at work coordinating the round-the-clock labors of more than 100 divers.

It's still early in the $7.1 million effort to recover the historic gun turret of the legendary Civil War ironclad. Yet the villagelike accumulation of tools, equipment, supplies, dive stations and communication vans that sprawls across the Wotan's deck has already taken on the look of an expeditionary force laying siege to some unseen fortress.

Stretched out beneath the shadow of the Wotan's enormous crane, this epic scene is far removed from the bare-bones propeller recovery expedition of 1998 or the Spartan surveying mission that followed a year later. Standing in the middle of it all, Cavey paces back and forth intently, seemingly lost in a world of his own. But his animated words and gestures tie every part of the complex operation together via a pair of two-way radios.

Such carefully orchestrated commotion is the daily order of battle here as the divers and archaeologists attack the formidable armor belt that obstructs the way to the Monitor's turret. But only Senior Chief Petty Officer Larry Fahey, the sole non-diver among the scores of sailors onboard, has the vantage point to see it all unfold.

Watching from his post on top of the anchor-winch house, the keen-eyed quartermaster crunches the keys of his laptop computer tirelessly, processing the endless river of requisition orders, shift rosters, berth assignments, diving reports and weather forecasts needed to keep the expedition going. Twice a day, he dons his white hard hat and walks down the winch house stairs, greeting each new diver, scientist or engineer as they transfer from the rolling deck of the crewboat Emmanuel - then seeing them off when their roles in the mighty effort are over.

Fahey sits in on the twice-daily shift meetings, too, listening as the reports come up from each dive station, then flow back down in the form of continually sharpened instructions. Often, he's the last person that a perpetually uneasy Scholley talks to at the end of each day as she tries to gauge the progress of the time-strapped mission.

"What you're seeing is the systematic application of diving resources to a very complicated problem," Fahey says, gazing at the spectacle playing out on the deck below.

"With a mission like this, the only way you can solve that problem is to dive around the clock. And that means splashing divers over and over again until the job is done."

Rescuing the Monitor