Above: The wreck of the Monitor changed dramatically after the portside armor belt and gun turret were removed, leaving an immense hole in the ocean bottom. NOAA photo
With the Monitor's historic gun turret safely on deck, the rescue mission turns to the tedious task of cleaning up the wreck site on the ocean floor. But the first team over the side runs into unexpected defiance. Driven off by the angry waters on the bottom -- and hounded by mounting waves above -- the divers and archaeologists retreat to Hampton Roads with their hard-won prize. But they discover a somber secret hidden inside the turret's armor walls.
TWO NAVY DIVERS STAND BACK TO BACK -- HANDS GRIPPING THE RAILS, FEET SPREAD WIDE AND WEDGED AGAINST THE CURBS -- as their diving stage goes up and over the side of the derrick barge Wotan.
Twelve hours have passed since the men and women of this tight-knit salvage corps - working alongside NOAA archaeologists and civilian engineers -- pulled the historic gun turret of the USS Monitor from the Graveyard of the Atlantic. And the hostile conditions that nearly doomed the daring, 236-ton lift on the previous afternoon have gone from bad to worse.
To the south, the beginnings of Tropical Storm Cristobal swirl- unpredicted and growing in strength -- as Master Diver Scott Heineman and Petty Officer Second Class Roman Mersino plunge into the restless ocean. Down beneath the waves, the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current have started another round of their age-old shoving match, kicking up the turbulence in the water column.
"Just another day at Hatteras," someone says, echoing the attitude of many of the sailors and scientists who have struggled for nearly six weeks with the defiant seas off the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
But not long after the 240-foot descent begins, the tall, strapping Heineman - who's dived on every Monitor expedition since 1998 - senses that this early morning visit could be different.
Out there, churning past his kidney-shaped faceplate, the currents rush by in a milky, foglike haze that he's never seen before. The familiar, snaggle-toothed members of the barracuda escort fleet -- nicknamed Hank, Barry, Bob, Fred and Mike -- look like they're swimming harder than usual to keep up.
"Maybe we bit off more than we can chew," the elite, 43-year-old diver thinks to himself. But it's the last dive of the expedition. He and Mersino feel fresh and strong. So they brace themselves and hope that the unpredictable Hatteras currents will settle down as they drop closer to the bottom.
Moments later, the two divers fly off into the gloom, snatched up by a gushing stream of water as they jump from the stage. When they finally land, they find themselves far off target, and they have to scuttle along on their hands and knees in order to keep from being carried off.
"The current was the worst I'd ever seen it," Heineman would say afterward, looking back over his summers at Hatteras.
"It was like being in the desert during a windstorm. I had to use my knife to drag myself along the bottom."
With their heads bowed and their chests pushed low, the divers crawl just beneath the turbulence, using the pressure against their backs to keep from being swept away. Pulling themselves in the direction of a big steel-mesh collection basket, they hope to gather the remaining tools, stow them inside and send them back to the surface. But they can't see more than 7 feet in any direction, and the little that they can see has changed dramatically.
"The turret was gone - and it was hard to get our bearings," Heineman would say later, describing the bewildering, bizzardlike scene on the bottom.
"It didn't even look like the same wreck."
Still, the disoriented divers manage to stumble into the basket after a brief search, then call up to the barge for a hook. Bracing themselves back to back, they strain to look up toward the surface, preferring to battle the neck-wrenching currents rather than risk getting slammed in the helmet by the lifting rig and its potentially lethal "head-ache ball."
With the sea rushing past at 3 knots or more, Heineman and Mersino struggle just to hold their positions. Gazing up into the sediment-filled waters, they search for any sign of the recovery line. But minute after minute goes by with nothing but fast-moving murk.
Soon their hearts are beating hard because of the exertion. Up in the surface-supplied diving station, Master Diver Jim Mariano adjusts his communications headset, grimacing as he hears the telltale sounds of his divers overbreathing.
Not long afterward, a rat's nest of lost fishing line cascades off the top of the tall, welded-steel basket and falls down around the unsuspecting Heineman. Dozens and dozens of feet wrap around his helmet and foul his "come-home" bottle of emergency gas, then entangle his broad shoulders and arms.
Several frightening moments pass before the veteran diver -- aided by his partner -- can free himself from the dangerous snare. He's still wrestling with the impulse to panic when Mariano decides to order them back.
"It was like a spider web," Heineman recalls.
"You're trying to get it off - but you can't get it off. You can barely see it."
Tens of thousands of dollars in salvage equipment lie strewn in the sand, testifying to the epic scale of the mission. But the current blows so rapidly over the wreck that the divers quickly agree their clean-up job will have to be abandoned.
Pulling themselves back by their umbilical lines, Heineman and Mersino fight to return to the stage, their helmet cameras capturing each step of their dangling, hand-over-hand struggle.
"Holy s-!" Mariano curses, as he watches his divers haul themselves through the currents.
"I just figured out you guys are going sideways!"
Heineman loses his knife, in fact, as he wrestles with the torrent. But he readily accepts the embarrassment of this salvage diver's flub in exchange for the chance to leave the wreck unhurt.
Clambering onto the stage exhausted, he and Mersino have to sit down, their legs straddling the posts, in order to support themselves against the relentless stream of water. Many minutes pass before their hearts slow down and their breathing returns to normal.
"I've been in this business for 20 years - and that was the worse dive I've ever had," the beat-up Heineman says, a few hours after his tired ride to the surface.
"Looks like old King Neptune's not too happy that we took his turret."
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