Scientists find way to open Hunley without cutting hull

Saturday, January 20, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff

     It took months of study, but Hunley scientists have found what they were looking for - a way to open the historic submarine without having to cut or significantly damage the hull or its artifacts.
     Their approach includes some familiar ideas, but features a technique for opening the crew compartment that only last fall was considered too dangerous. New research on the hull changed those impressions, and the weeks-long process of opening the Hunley begins Monday without a powersaw in sight.
     Archaeologists first will enter through an existing horizontal tear - a rip that probably was made long ago by a wayward anchor either searching for the elusive sub or seeking a firm place to settle in.
     The tear, about as long as a baseball bat and high on the rear starboard side, has been patched since the sub was recovered. It's wide enough that a man could easily stick his arms through it.
     Archaeologists, working from the outside in, will begin by removing accumulated sediment by hand. From there they hope to expose the sub's rear compartment containing the Hunley's steering rods and hand-crank propeller shaft.
     No human remains are expected to be found here; the crew is believed to have been confined inside the sub's rowing chamber at the very center of the vessel.
     But by exposing the rear chamber, researchers hope they can get a better idea of how the sub was originally built and how its rivets were anchored in place.
     "We'll photograph it, X-ray it and figure out exactly how those rivets are attached, and to what," Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell said Friday.
     The rivets are the key to the team's nondestructive plan for opening the the crew compartment. Researchers once feared that removing any panel could cause the hull to collapse, but new information led them to propose an idea that just months ago seemed too risky.
     Hunley scientists plan to drill out the rivets on alternating panels and then lift them out, leaving half of the panels still attached. The panels are in a half-circle, and when assembled give the sub its tubular shape.
     Team members hope the rivets are the only part of the original sub that will have to be damaged for scientists to gain entry. Each panel has about 50.
     The method will allow the sediment to be kept in the sub and for its internal contents to examined by hand. "Our concern is the sediment falling out," McConnell said.
     The team expects to find war artifacts and human remains in- side.
     "It should be like a time capsule in there," said Hunley Commission member Randy Burbage.
     The excavation could take weeks, and officials hope to be in the crew compartment in mid-February to coincide with the sub's Feb. 17, 1864, attack on the blockade ship USS Housatonic.
     Water around the sub in its holding tank has been drained, giving visitors their best view since the Hunley was recovered from 4 miles off Sullivan's Island on Aug. 8.
     The last public tour of the Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation lab is scheduled for Sunday. Afterward, the Friends of the Hunley will hold a closed religious ceremony in advance of opening the sub, which is also considered a tomb for its nine-man crew. The service will be attended by Hunley volunteers and Civil War reenactors.
     Members of the public will be allowed to watch a live feed of the recovery on video screens in a room next to the holding tank. Tickets will cost $5. Friends of the Hunley will also have a Web camera.
     Further details on the excavation will be released Monday.
     The Hunley became the world's first attack sub when it rammed a black-powder charge into the Housatonic. But the sub and crew never returned.


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Revised: 22 Jun 2011 05:49:38 -0400.

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