The weather has got us by the throat," said Lt. Cmdr. Robert R. Wells as he and a special team of Navy and Coast Guard divers and salvagers waited to begin their grim and difficult task of raising the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay.
Winds getting up to 26 knots and swells between four and six feet on the bay already have prolonged the costly operation that, with good weather and round-the-clock work, is expected to bring the cutter back to the surface.
One veteran Navy diver yesterday called the Cuyahoga undertaking "a hazardous business" and said divers on the site are wearing bulky, 190-pond protective diving suits as a precaution. Officials said it is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise the ship.
Poor weather halted diving at the search site at noon yesterday, after divers earlier brought up three more bodies from the wreck submerged in a shipping lane off Smith Point. Officials set sometime Saturday as the earliest the cutter might be raised, but said it might be the middle of next week.
The three crewmen, killed when the training vessel collided with the Argentinean freighter Santa Cruz II last Friday and quickly sank, brought to nine the number of bodies recovered. Two more bodies are presumed trapped inside the cutter's steel hull.
Those recovered yesterday were identified as Lt. Wiyono Sumalyo, 34, of the Indonesian navy, officer candidate Edward J. Thomason, 32, of Wichita, Kan., and Subsistance Specialist Ernestino A. Balinana.
Coast Guard officials said two of the bodies were found inside the ship, one in the galley area and one in the engine room. The third was discovered in an undisclosed location.
According to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Barry Chambers, 37, the veteran diver who heads Navy participants in the salvage effort, several divers have become nauseated after probing the ship's innards and discovering corpses floating overhead.
A mile wide area in the usually traffic-filled channel northeast of Smith Point has been cordoned off to prevent ships from interfering with salvage operations and to protect them from scraping the Cuyahoga's mast, which lies only four feet below the surface.
The effort to raise the vessel, known as "a derrick lift," will be a carefully orchestrated attempt to rig a sling of wires under the bow and stern of the 125-foot cutter and lift it gingerly to the surface, briefing officers said Wednesday night.
Once on the surface, water will be pumped out of the vessel, and it will be hoisted by crane onto a waiting barge equiped with a special cradle and keel blocks for the cutter.
According to a Coast Guard spokesman, a decision about what to do next with the Cuyahoga will be up to members of the official board of inquiry meeting this week in Baltimore.
Two Navy derrick barges, positioned near the sunken vessel, will be joined side by side to begin the recovery. The barges are to be securely moored by four 11,000-foot cables of 10-inch nylon and metal attached to heavy anchors.
Divers will then slip three-quarter-inch "messenger wires" under the bow and stern of the vessel, securing it to the cranes. Two-inch wire will then be attached to the messenger lines and drawn underneath the ship. Final, a bundle of three two-inch wires will be passed under the ship and connected to the crane.
Each of these two-inch wires has a lift capacity of 120 tons, greater than is needed and greater than the two cranes' combined lift capacity of 350 tons, salvage officials said.
Once the bundles are in place, "preventer wires" are attached from the cutter to the bundles overhead, preventing the shop from sliding out of its cradle, should either the bow or stern be raised too quickly.
The cutter is lying at a 45 degree angle in 57 feet of water. The bay bottom where the Cuyahoga rests is "hard as concrete," according to divers. There is none of the mud that often complicates salvage operations, they said.
A storm four days ago with 50-knot winds ripped much of the barges' mooring loose, causing anchors and thousands of feet of expensive line to be lost.
Once fitted into its cradle, the ship will be raised at about 15 feet an hour. If the waters grow rough before the cutter is aboard the barge, it may have to be lowered once again to the bay floor, Coast Guard officials said.
Chambers who lives near Elizabeth City, N.C., said he had been sitting at home having a drink with his wife when he received word of the Cuyahoga collision. Two hours later he was leaping from a helicopter into the choppy waters of the Chesapeake to help search for survivors.