Wrestling with the spider

Above: Petty Officer First Class Chadwick Vann looks down the Monitor's gun turret with a video camera after the removal of the overhanging armor belt.
Chief Petty Officer Eric J. Tilford/U.S. Navy
Eighteen times heavier than the CSS Hunley -- and trapped under seas nearly nine times as deep -- the massive gun turret of the USS Monitor was a far more forbidding target than the historic Confederate submarine recovered in 2000. And many of its rescuers feared it might break apart after 140 years on the bottom.

In Chapter 4, reporter Mark St. John Erickson describes the perilous attempt to drop a 26-ton lifting frame -- nicknamed the "spider" -- down through the unpredictable currents and around the fragile iron cylinder. Pushed off course by a buried obstacle, the enormous spider lands askew, confronting the divers with such a staggering task that the expedition seems doomed.

FROM 502 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH, the Gulf Stream is virtually invisible -- at least to the human eye.

Scanned by a thermal-imaging device aboard a NOAA satellite, however, its warm, sub-tropical waters appear angry and red. And it's easy to trace their path as they gush up from the tip of Florida, curve to the northeast along Georgia and the South Carolina coast, then careen away from the Outer Banks of North Carolina into the Atlantic.

The cold flow of the Labrador Current, similarly, looks blue and green as it drops down from Canada and pushes southwest toward Cape Hatteras. There, these two oceanic rivers meet in an offshore shoving match of such colossal and often fatal proportions that the region has become a legendary maritime graveyard.

No one knows how many wrecks lie on the bottom here, brought down by this unpredictable clash of geophysical forces. But the sunken fleet of some 2,000 ships recorded as lost since 1526 includes World War II U-boats as well as Spanish galleons -- plus one of history's most famous naval vessels.

For nearly 140 years, the upside-down hulk of the USS Monitor has marked the line where these waters collide, providing the backdrop for a nutrient-rich, sub-tropical ecosystem that teems with life and color. Tiny red barbier zip and swirl over the Civil War ship in enormous schools, chased by predatory packs of golden-brown, lavender-bellied amberjacks. Solitary black sea bass troll more slowly through the clouds of fleeing fish, as do the ominous forms of an occasional hammerhead shark and its sand tiger cousins.

Other species swim by, too, then dart to safety as the 325-pound, yellow-and-black frame of a Navy ROV whirrs its way through the murky depths toward the wreck on the bottom. Trailing a winding red-and-white umbilical cord, this robotic "bug" sends the first views of the Monitor's newly uncovered gun turret back to the surface, where a joint Navy and NOAA archaeological expedition waits 40 fathoms above.

Though it measures 22 feet in diameter, the renowned turret makes for a confusing sight -- with much of it hidden under the jumble of wooden timbers, iron plates and other debris that fell down when the sailors cleared away an overhanging section of hull and armor belt.

But as the ROV's images stream back through the water to the derrick barge Wotan, the initial results of this $7.1-million, industrial-sized recovery project check out much better than imagined.

Equally good are the pictures captured by a Fleet Combat Camera team, which descends to document the changes in the wreck a short time later. Scrambling up a stepladder to the remaining section of the Monitor's portside armor belt, Petty Officer First Class Chadwick Vann peers down onto the turret with a digital video camera -- surveying the newly exposed artifact -- while Chief Petty Officer Eric Tilford records the scene with a digital still.

So dramatic is Tilford's photograph that it makes the pages of The New York Times. But the chief reason for excitement aboard the Wotan is the unexpectedly good condition of the Monitor's 140-year-old gun turret.

"So far, we're encouraged by what we see," drawls archaeologist John Broadwater, chief scientist and manager of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, as he describes the flow of photographs from the bottom.

"Anything can happen at Hatteras, of course. Our predictions have been wrong in the past. But right now, we're aiming at recovering the turret sometime between the 20th and the 25th (of July)."

That gives the divers and archaeologists a target that's nearly three weeks away.

They also have another 15 days in which to take care of any unexpected snags.

"We'd really like to have a few days to clean the site up after we get the turret to the surface," says Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of the Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two -- and the mission's tactical leader.

"Let's hope that's what we're doing when it's time to go home."

Rescuing the Monitor