Bad Weather At USS Monitor Dive Site

CAROUSEL - In this May 21, 2009, file photo, suspended NFL quarterback Michael Vick, right, steps out onto the deck with a federal agent while testing out his electronic monitor worn on his ankle in Hampton, Va. AP Photo/Jason Hirschfeld, File

Strong undersea currents and shifting winds have delayed an attempt to raise the historic revolving gun turret of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

Navy divers had expected to begin the process at 4 a.m. Sunday but had to postpone their efforts until the currents 16 miles off Cape Hatteras abated around midday. Work was again interrupted about four hours later as the currents on the ocean's bottom began picking up again, said Commander Bobbie Scholley, the Navy's commander for the expedition.

The sea started to shift and 2- to 4-foot waves rocked the work barge, Scholley said. In the late afternoon, a tug began picking up and repositioning each anchor, a process expected to take four to six hours.

At that point, expedition leaders were to decide when they could raise the turret.

Scholley said the lift could take place early Monday.

"If we've got favorable conditions, once the barge has moved, we're going to want to take advantage of the opportunity," Scholley told reporters during a conference call as she waited on the barge.

Scholley said she hopes to lift the turret as soon as possible because forecasts indicate a storm could develop Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.

"That could shut us down for several days," Scholley said.

Winds were 15 to 20 mph Sunday afternoon and needed to be calmer before the lift could be made, she said.

Workers had to hook up the sling to a 500-ton crane on the barge, she said. The sling then was to be lowered into the water and connected to a custom-made steel claw that divers previously attached to the iron turret.

Expedition leaders then will decide whether conditions are good enough to take the next step and move the claw, turret and sling onto a platform near the turret on the ocean floor. The entire platform then would be pulled to the surface.

The one factor that divers don't have to worry about is darkness.

"We've got plenty of lighting out here," Scholley said. "It's not our first choice, but it can be done after dark."

On Saturday, expedition leaders announced that a skeleton believed to be that of one of the Monitor's sailors had been found inside the turret. The lower part of the skeleton was encased in sediment and pinned beneath one of the cannons.

Divers were to try to remove as much of the skeleton as they could before the turret is raised. The remains were taken from the barge in two plastic containers Sunday morning and will be taken to the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for analysis.

"After 140 years at depth, the preservation is amazing," Army archaeologist Eric Emery said. "I think people will be talking about this for a while."

Sixteen officers and crew members died Dec. 31, 1862 when the Union ship sank during a storm while being towed south, landing upside-down in 240 feet of water.

"We all understand that these were sailors that lost their lives down there. And we think about that. And when we come across that, it kind of brings that up in your mind again," said Scholley.

The Monitor and the Confederate ship CSS Virginia revolutionized naval warfare when they fought to a draw on March 9, 1862, near Newport News, Va. It was the first battle of ironclads - ships covered in iron plates to repel cannon balls. Until the Virginia and the Monitor, most fighting ships were wooden.

While the Virginia had banks of guns, the entire ship had to be moved to get the best firing angles. The Monitor's innovative revolving cylindrical turret allowed the crew to maneuver the ship to stay out of harm's way while maintaining accurate fire by adjusting the position of the turret.

"It's an exciting feeling," says Scholley of the Monitor expedition. "It's part of our heritage. And it's just a fascinating dive to get down there."

The recovery of the Monitor is now a race against time, as the wreck is the final stages of deterioration and is about to collapse.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working with the Navy and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., on the $6.5 million project to raise the turret.

Raising the turret is the last big job in a five-year effort to save the ship's unique features. The entire vessel is too fragile to be raised.

The turret will be taken to the museum to be preserved and displayed along with hundreds of other artifacts that already have been recovered.

The wreckage was discovered in 1973.

  • Sue Chan

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