Navy divers recovered most of a human skeleton from the wreck of the USS Monitor this past week, while preparing to pull the ship's historic gun turret from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Along with a pair of bone fragments exposed July 26, the finds leave little doubt that the expedition has uncovered the tragic remains of a Civil War sailor.

"We can tentatively confirm that we do have one of the Monitor's crewmen who was trapped inside the turret," said John Broadwater, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientific team guiding the Navy divers.

"We have a fairly complete skeleton."

Most of the bones were methodically mapped and retrieved over the past few days, said Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base group spearheading the Navy's efforts.

But some of the least accessible elements, including the sailor's legs and feet, remain trapped under the carriages that hold the Monitor's guns.

They will be left in place to be excavated on the surface once the 120-ton turret and its two 15,750-pound Dahlgren cannons have been recovered safely.

"It's so difficult to work underwater, especially at this depth, that decision was made to continue the rest of the excavation at The Mariners' Museum," Broadwater said.

Working in shifts around the clock, the divers succeeded in positioning all eight legs of a 29-ton lifting frame early in the week, locking the feet into place beneath the lip of the 9-foot-tall turret.

They also rigged both cannons to the hub of the spiderlike structure, securing the huge and potentially dangerous weight with a series of sturdy Kevlar slings.

"That's really the big one," Scholley said, describing a task that's worried the expedition's planners since the turret excavation began.

"Once most of the remains were out, we had to make sure that those guns were secure."

Late in the week, the divers turned their attention to the roof of the turret.

The revolving gun turret separated from the Monitor's hull as the ship sank, then landed upside down in the sand.

Using a pair of newly exposed hatches for access, divers slipped two 6-foot-long steel beams under the roof, rigging them to the lifting frame for support.

A third, 16-foot beam was scheduled to be eased into place before the turret lift.

Once the Monitor's turret is securely rigged, it could be pulled from the 240-foot-deep waters as early as today, if the notoriously unpredictable Cape Hatteras weather behaves.

It will then be transported to The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, where numerous other artifacts from the historic ship - including the steam engine and propeller - are undergoing conservation treatment.

"Right now, the weather out here is not what we'd like to see for the lift," Scholley said, speaking Saturday by telephone from the barge.

"We've got 2- to 4-foot seas and 10- to 15-knot winds. So we're keeping our fingers crossed."

Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at merickson@dailypress.com