- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

"Ten feet."The piles of two multicolored umbilical diving lines rapidly collect in uneven circles on the deck of this 300-foot barge as four Navy divers haul the lines up from the depths of the Atlantic. A diver watching the meter again yells out the depth, his shirt soaked with sweat on this hot June day.
"Five feet."
Within five seconds, a metal cage with two surface divers attached emerges from the blue Gulf Stream waters, lifted by a large metal crane.
As soon as the cage is placed on the deck, the divers are whisked to a nearby metal seat, where swarms of attendants strip them of their yellow dive masks, silver tanks, black boots and red dive suits. In less than two minutes, the two divers scurry to fit into a small, cylindrical metal decompression chamber, where they will be trapped for nearly two hours as they breathe pure oxygen to detoxify their blood of nitrogen bubbles that built up during the 30-minute dive.
The diving operation, which will last until early next month, is unprecedented for its combination of size, with more than 70 Navy divers, its saturation diving teams, which place divers underwater for eight hours, and its collaboration with civilian companies, says Cmdr. Phil McGuinn, a Navy public affairs officer.
Most important, the divers are going after one of their own.
One hundred and thirty-nine years ago, the USS Monitor — the Civil War Union ironclad that was the progenitor for the modern battleship — sank with 16 of its men in an 1862 New Year's Eve gale. Today, its remains are being plucked from the ocean floor in a round-the-clock collaboration between the Navy, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Mariners' Museum of Newport News, Va.
The efforts, which began in 1998, are centered on recovering the 30-ton steam engine by strapping it to a large metal frame that straddles the wreck and slowly raising it up by crane 240 feet to the ocean's surface. Then the engine will be lifted onto the barge and shipped to the Mariners' Museum.
The Monitor is not merely a sunken Civil War battleship. Combining a rotating gun turret, iron armor and a design that placed the engine and the crew's quarters entirely below the waterline, it was built in an unprecedented 98 days. Ridiculed on its launching in late January 1862 as a "cheesebox on a raft," it squared off against the ironclad CSS Virginia (built on the frame of the USS Merrimack) on March 9 near Hampton Roads, Va., in an inconclusive four-hour battle that was claimed as a victory by both sides.
The battle was crucial because it halted the onslaught of the Confederate "Rebel monster," which the previous day had sunk two Union ships and wounded another, the USS Minnesota. When the Virginia returned the following day to finish off the Minnesota, the Monitor lay straight in its path.
"The reason the Monitor was able to have such an impact was that it was a day late. … By coming a day late, the Virginia began to annihilate the proudest ships of the Union. After that day, no more would the wooden ships be built across the world," says John Broadwater, manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary at the site of the wreck and NOAA's chief scientist.
After the Monitor's wreck was discovered in 1973 by Duke University research scientists, Mr. Broadwater was consulted, and his diving experience soon allowed him to coordinate small missions with NOAA.
The prohibitive cost of raising even part of the wreck prevented any large-scale effort, however, until the Navy and its access to the Department of Defense's Legacy Grant, which gave $4.9 million to the project this year, initiated the current recovery project in 1998.
Mr. Broadwater is one of three NOAA employees who help guide the Navy as the divers work to recover pieces of the ship and secure the engine.
As each piece is raised from the ocean floor, it is examined immediately by Mr. Broadwater, who discerns the significance of the corroded metal. He identifies a twisted hunk of brown metal, covered in crabs and seaweed, as the blower, which was used to cool the steam engine.
"This is very edifying because I have been wondering for 30 years about the ventilation system, and here it is," he says. Beyond the gee-whiz excitement, the urgency to recover the Monitor has increased in recent years as the rate of deterioration has increased. Though it is not possible to raise the entire wreck, Mr. Broadwater says he hopes the efforts to recover the engine and the gun turret will allow the public to share his first view of the gun turret.
"I'd say of all the historical shipwrecks that relate to this country's history, this is the most important," he says. " remembers the battle, and it means something to people. It really does seem to tug at the heartstrings of the average person."
For the Navy divers, the salvage effort is a prime training opportunity in deep ocean water. Members of the team have been called on as salvage divers for airplane crashes — such as those of TWA Flight 800 and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s single-engine Piper Saratoga II — and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
Petty Officer Christopher Dixon, a Silver Spring native and a Navy Seals aspirant, taught himself to swim to become a Navy diver. His first official Navy dive, down to the depths where the Monitor sits, was the dive of a lifetime, despite a barracuda that came within eight inches of his face.
"For my first dive to be a mixed-air dive, with a hot-water suit and a maximum depth of 240 feet, … most divers don't get the chance to do this. This is the most dangerous sort of diving environment," he says. "There are divers who have waited 10 years to make the dive I just did."
The site has attracted top Navy divers, but the dual goals of historical education and military training have not proved to be mutually exclusive. Jeff Johnston, a NOAA historian who works the night shift on the floating barge, says the divers ask him for information.
"All night long, they'll sit up to hear history lessons. This is one of their own it is the great-great-grandmother of the modern-day battleship," he says.
Although the Monitor would prove its salt in battle, the awkward design the deck of the ship was only a foot above the waterline allowed critics to label shipbuilder John Ericsson's creation as "Ericsson's Folly."
NOAA diving archaeologist Tane Casserley recounts that the crew lived in tightly cramped quarters below the waterline, ate rancid meat only with the help of heavy spices (pepper bottles have been recovered from the wreck) and faced a tremendous din of combat, with shells exploding against the iron armor. The same idiosyncrasies that made the ship so uncomfortable, though, were the result of the leap in naval technology.
The Navy divers hardly face easier conditions. They say the food and berthing is good by Navy standards, but they dive around the clock, and the two-man saturation diver teams, after their eight hours of diving, must decompress for 66 hours — stuck in a large metal tank with little to distract them but piped-in music and tin-foil-wrapped meals.
Mr. Casserley links the innovative design of the Monitor with the current Navy efforts to salvage the ship.
"The Monitor itself was probably the most important ship ever built, but now the Navy is using its high technology to bring it to the surface," he says.
This is the first time in 10 years that the Navy has done saturation diving and the first time it has ever used a massive barge platform, he says.
"The whole continuum of innovation is the same."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide