Above: The sailors of the saturation diving station lower the diving bell over the side of the Wotan. The transfer lock to the saturation living chambers is shown at bottom center. David Bowman/Daily Press
Slowed by storms, perilous bottom conditions and the enormous demands of their task, the rescuers of the USS Monitor gun turret run into a seemingly impossible hurdle just as their funding begins to run out. In chapter 5 of his series, reporter Mark St. John Erickson follows the beleaguered divers and archaeologists as they struggle to save the fragile skeletal remains found inside the sunken turret. Even as they rush to prepare the turret for the risky recovery attempt, however, a tropical storm threatens from the southeast -- and the currents off Cape Hatteras start to rip.
INSIDE THE 9-FOOT-WIDE WORLD OF THE MONITOR EXPEDITION'S DIVING BELL, the atmosphere is dank and humid.
Cold helium and oxygen flow down from the surface, reducing the divers' body temperatures as well as the potentially deadly risk of oxygen toxicity and nitrogen narcosis. Hot exhaled air swirls away into a whirring, clicking chemical scrubber, where it is swept clean of unwanted carbon dioxide and recycled back into the white-painted sphere.
With two men on board, it doesn't take many lungfuls of this thick, hard-to-breathe mixture before the equipment-strewn space feels stagnant and wet -- much like the inside of a small, tightly sealed greenhouse. Yet even as all the nicks and scratches they've sustained over the past few weeks fester into gnawing skin infections, the sailors who live and work in the saturation diving system have no choice but to endure the discomfort.
Bobbing up and down at a depth of 220 feet, they must ignore the pressure changes gnashing inside their ears, too, and focus instead on getting the working diver out for the first of the team's two, 6-hour shifts on the bottom. One arm held over his head -- and his "come-home bottle" of emergency gas jutting from his back -- the lead sailor finally corkscrews feet-first through the hatch and into a lazily passing school of barracuda. Then he bounds across the sand and climbs onto the wreck of the USS Monitor, where he quickly gives up one claustrophobic realm for another.
Threading his way between the beams of a giant, clawlike lifting frame, the diver drops into the top of the ship's upside-down turret, then sinks to the bottom of a 7-foot-deep hole. There he stoops to his knees and peers into the sediment-filled water, trying to distinguish the shapes of human bones from a 140-year-old accumulation of concreted rust, sand and silt.
Down here, a heightened sense of touch ranks as an essential tool -- as does the sound of archaeologist Eric Emery's voice floating in from the massive barge 240 feet above. Step by step, inch by inch, bone by bone, the bleary-eyed scientist stares just as intently at the video images streaming back from the sailors' helmet cameras. Then he guides them through a methodical process of mapping, photographing and extracting that stretches on for hours, then around the clock.
Such delicate and painstaking work is a far cry from the usual labors of these rugged Navy salvage divers -- known in the service as "junkmen" -- who normally measure themselves by the ability to get tonnage on deck as quickly as possible.
It also comes at the worst time for the $7.1 million Navy and NOAA expedition attempting to recover the pioneering gun turret of the historic Civil War ship.
Anchored some 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the sailors and archaeologists have spent more than a month battling the same unpredictable weather and currents that sank the famous ironclad during a Dec. 31, 1862 storm. They struggled to remove a 45-foot-long, 40-ton section of armor belt, then dug their way through tons of sediment and coal that weighed the giant cylinder down. They dropped a massive, 26-ton lifting frame into place around the turret's walls, then wrestled with its eight, 15-foot-tall legs for nearly two weeks as they pushed them down through the sand and locked them into position.
Now less than two weeks remains before the derrick barge Wotan must tie up in Hampton Roads. Nearly two days of that time will be consumed by the voyage home. And still the sailors must remove a fragile set of human remains -- then finish the rest of the job -- before their shrinking calendar runs out.
Hour after hour ticks by as the demanding work drags on. The mood on both the bottom and the Wotan's deck is anything but cheerful.
But the divers continue to grind away at the task in the hopes of saving the chance to pull the turret up.
"If you just step back and say -- 'Oh my God! We've got to recover a whole skeleton!' -- it looks really hard. But if you can break it down into steps, it's simple -- and it starts to become automatic," says Chief Warrant Officer Rick Cavey, head of the expedition's diving operation.
"The thing about sailors is that they're used to taking orders. They roger up when they're told to do it. And that's the way we're going to do it here."
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