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Hunley may have run out of air

 

Saturday, April 21, 2001

BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff

 


     The answers to nagging, century-old questions about the H.L. Hunley's final minutes now are only a few feet away, buried in gray mud.
     As archaeologists close in on the forward section of the Confederate submarine's crew compartment, two very different theories of how the Hunley's crew met its end are forming.
     The single-bullet theory surmises that a Minie ball fired from the deck of the USS Housatonic shattered the Hunley's forward cast-iron conning tower during the attack, allowing water to pour in while an injured Lt. George Dixon struggled to control the contrary sub.
     A new scenario, based on some surprising discoveries inside the sub, suggests a peaceful end, with the crew quietly losing consciousness and dying of oxygen deprivation.
     The two scenes of the Hunley's final moments are at odds with one another. But the answer, Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell says, is close.
     "The keys to what happened in the final moments are with Dixon," McConnell said Friday. "We're about three weeks away."
     The archaeologists, working like crime scene investigators, will piece together clues to figure out exactly what happened to the Hunley when it disappeared Feb. 17, 1864, after delivering the charge that sank the Housatonic.
     Here's how they will do it.
     The single-bullet theory depends largely on the placement of the shattered pieces of the front conning tower. If those pieces are high in the sediment filling the sub, it would suggest the hole was made years - even decades - after the submarine sank. If the shards of cast iron are on the floor, that may indicate the hole happened at the time of sinking, perhaps even caused the sinking.
     Dixon's remains also will tell much of the story. The sub commander would have most likely been standing with his head in that conning tower. If a bullet hit it, it likely injured or killed him. His skull would show that injury.
     The other theory, oxygen deprivation, has developed as the excavation has progressed over the past two months. It has formed through a series of mysterious clues, including:
     b The crew members have been found at their work stations. This suggests there was no panic on board. Scientists half- expected to find the bones of the crewmen mingled on the floor of the sub as they died climbing over each other trying to open the sub's hatches. The remains have been found in neat intervals in the mud.
     b Stalactites and oxygen stains that suggest that the sub's interior did not fill with water right away, shooting a hole - so to speak - in the single-bullet theory.
     b The only crewman not found at his seat was found on top of what may be the remnants of a bellows used to pump air into the Hunley. He could have been trying to suck new air into the sub when it went down.
     McConnell said Friday that doctors deduce the crew may have died from anoxia, a complete lack of oxygen. If that occurred, the crew would have simply run out of oxygen and gone to sleep - much like the crew and passengers of the private jet carrying Payne Stewart that crashed a year ago.
     As the archaeologists work to solve the mystery, they also will look at a few other pieces of equipment. First, they want to know if the keel weights are unbolted. That would indicate the crew was trying to make the submarine surface.
     Secondly, they want to know if the forward hatch was unbolted, to see if the crew was trying to push it open. And they want to determine whether the seacocks to the ballast tanks were open or closed. That would indicate whether they were trying to flood the tanks or empty them.
     Throughout the excavation, however, the answers to lingering mysteries have come at unexpected turns. This week, they found what may be the sub- marine's steering rods beneath the bench the crew sat on. The rods are not where historical drawings put them.
     On Thursday they found a wallet. A piece of paper has the letters "E-N-D" ominously printed on it, although that may just be part of a word.
     Archaeologists have found eight of nine crew members and have located six skulls.
     The only one still missing is Dixon. As usual, the Hunley is slow to give up its mysteries.
    
FOOTNOTE:

Re: Thoughts on the bellows and the loss of air subbuff (46/M/WA) 5/9/01 11:21 pm

Here is some general information on CO2 excerpted from a couple of MSDS (material safety data sheets). This will help give us a better idea of what the crew was dealing with as the air became fouled.

Health Hazard Data Effects of overexposure:
Inhalation nervous system control of respiration is dependent on the CO2 level of breathed in air. By reducing the oxygen level in air, CO2
can cause suffocation.

Symptoms include:
Headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscular weakness, drowsiness and ringing in the ears. High concentrations produce a faint acid
taste and can cause paralysis of the breathing control centers of the nervous system: 2%
by volume in the atmosphere will cause a 50% increase in the breathing rate; 3%, a
100% rate increase; >4% produces labored breathing and is dangerous for even a few
minutes of exposure; >12% causes rapid unconsciousness; a few hours exposure at 25%
results in death.


Inhalation:
Vapor is heavier than air and can cause suffocation by reducing oxygen available for breathing. Breathing very high concentrations of vapor can cause lightheadedness, giddiness, shortness of breath, muscular tremors and weakness, acrocyanosis. Also unconsciousness or even death.

From another MSDS.

Signs and Symptoms:
Acute Overexposure:
Dizziness, impaired coordination, reduce mental acuity, headaches, tinnitus, difficulty breathing, drowsiness, depending on length of exposure and concentrations.

And...

In a typical "quiet" cycle of breathing, a person will take in about one half quart of air, but the lungs actually hold about 4 quarts. Thus, most people will breathe in only about 12% of the total capacity of the lungs.
[Source for lung capacity, page 817, Pathologic Basis Of Disease, Robbins & Cotran.]

subbuff Mike

Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net.  
    


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