Thousands welcome Confederate sub home

Wednesday, August 9, 2000

By SCHUYLER KROPF
Of The Post and Courier staff


     Like an injured dolphin hanging in a rescue sling, the submarine H.L. Hunley rose safely from the sea Tuesday and returned to Charleston, escorted by an armada of boats eager to accompany the long-lost Confederate sub home.
     "It's a treasure, and we got it all," proclaimed National Park Service diver Dr. Dave Conlin. "It's a piece of world history. It's the granddaddy of all submarines."
     "I'm numb - just numb," added author Clive Cussler. "Everybody assured me that this thing would go like clockwork, and it did."
     The Hunley broke the ocean's surface at 8:39 a.m. after a tense, one-minute pause when it hung suspended in its lift cables, barely 10 feet off the bottom.
     But after the crane operator got the final "OK go," up it came, marking the successful recovery of the world's first attack sub - a vessel so daring it helped render wooden navies obsolete.
     "What an emotional day. I can't describe how I feel," said Paul Mardikian, the French archaeologist who will treat and restore the sub and its artifacts for the next seven years.
     "If I don't cry today, it's incredible," he said.
     With a national audience watching on TV and thousands of South Carolinians following from shore, the recovery closed a story five years in the making.
     In May 1995, a dive team funded by Cussler said it found the sub, solving the first riddle of the elusive stealth weapon. Since then, it has become an object of worship by both Confederate faithful and maritime historians.
     What those lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Hunley on Tuesday saw was something resembling a giant cigar encrusted in a thick coating of corrosion and marine growth.
     It's also covered by a new layer of 4-month-old barnacles, just like what anyone would see at low tide growing on a pier. If you touch it, you'd risk razor-cutting a finger.
     Still, scientists ooed and awwed.
     Almost immediately, they started picking out the multiple design features they couldn't fully see underwater but will study for decades.
     There's a conning tower porthole they didn't know about. The bow slopes like an icebreaker, and at a cramped 42 feet long, the idea that nine men could fit inside the Hunley looks downright impossible.
     "We did it! We did it!" exclaimed Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley, as the sub surfaced.
     "Oh my gosh," said Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell, who went nearly speechless. "Look at that fin. Look at that incredible fin."
     "It's almost a contradiction to have a beautiful vessel like that also be a coffin," Lasch said.
     Researchers believe nine men, including skipper Lt. George Dixon, have been entombed inside ever since the night of Feb. 17, 1864, when the Hunley left the north end of Sullivan's Island on a seek-and-destroy mission against Union blockade ships. The Hunley men found, rammed and sank the USS Housatonic four miles off shore. But the Hunley never returned, her nine sailors presumably drowned. This was its third and final crew; 22 men in all were killed in the sub.
     Now, with the sub finally back on dry land, teams can begin the painstaking process of solving the mysteries of the sub's last night.
     One key aid could be found inside the sub's cramped quarters: Forensics experts expect to find the crews' remains nearly at their exact rowing stations but buried in the layer of silt that collected inside.
     "The oxygen went down very quickly because of the decomposition of the bodies," Mardikian said. "I am very confident we may find a lot of artifacts."
     But the real story Tuesday was the recovery from beneath 28 feet of swirling ocean. There was no countdown. No "3-2-1." Just a lift ... followed by honking horns and cheers as it was shown off, hanging 15 feet over the ocean.
     Once out of the water, the sub was moved by crane to a bobbing barge where engineers discovered they'd have, at most, 28 seconds of calm water between swells. It was planted with perfection.
     "Those fellas will not spend another night in the Atlantic Ocean," state Sen. McConnell said as he regained his voice.
     The sub, still locked in its lift truss, rested on its side at the same 45-degree angle in which it was found. To keep it protected from the atmosphere, the Hunley was continually wetted by spray - from a set of ordinary garden sprinklers.
     Moments later, the barge was tied to a tow barge and pointed toward shore as police and more than 300 pleasure boats followed alongside. Some flew giant Confederate battle flags.
     Though Tuesday was a celebration of recovery, it quickly took on a carnival flair. Boats and crowds welcomed the sub in as it crossed into Charleston Harbor near Fort Moultrie.
     John Tucker, the Park Service's chief ranger for Fort Sumter National Monument, estimated about 5,000 witnessed the Hunley passing by the fort.
     "This day shows that the Southern spirit is alive and well in Charleston," added native Virginian and Mount Pleasant resident Travis Wolfe. "It's a positive day for the South. I'm glad to be a Southerner, and I think the people who aren't wished they were."
     Off-duty Marine Sgt. Calvin Foster, a black man from Millen, Ga., had mixed feelings about the scene, as he waited for the Hunley with 10 fellow Marines from Beaufort.
     "I think it's a part of history - something to see and share - but I also think we should let go of it," Foster said, noting his discomfort with all the Confederate flags.
     Spirits were much worse down the harbor at Patriot's Point. Most of those who assembled there missed a close view of the sub despite the fact it was advertised as a prime viewing spot. The route was either too shallow for the tug to make or it was too wide a turn to get back to after the tug paraded the Hunley past the Charleston Maritime Center. It never got closer than 300 yards off the aircraft carrier Yorktown.
     "Doesn't look like much, does it?" added Johnny Roberts rhetorically.
     "Eleven dollars for that?" said Fred Jackson, a Charleston resident who was obviously disappointed.
     Another high note came when traffic on the Cooper River bridges came to a complete stop at noon as the Hunley passed under. Drivers abandoned their cars to peer over the side of the bridge as the sub passed under. No one seemed to experience road rage because of the delay.
     It took three hours to make the 15-mile trip from the wreck site to Pier Juliet at the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. Upon its arrival at about 1:20 p.m., the vessel was unloaded and gingerly carted to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. A ceiling-mounted crane lowered it into the conservation tank where it will sit in a cold water bath.
     It could be months before scientists find a way into the sub. But they have plenty of time.
     So far, the Hunley project has cost about $8 million in taxpayer and private funding. That includes $5 million for the lift and $2.8 million for the conservation lab.
     After the Hunley was placed in its tank, Lasch declared "the Hunley has completed her long journey. Soon we'll be solving the mystery of why she didn't come home 136 years ago."
     Added McConnell: "If these men could stand here today, they would tell you thank you for bringing them home."
    
    


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