An undersea band of divers, technicians, archeologists and oceanologists wound up a 17-day probe of the U.S.S. Monitor wreck site yesterday after recovering artifacts and placing the first men on the historic ironclad since it vanished 115 years ago.
Working 220 feet beneath an often stormy sea on a site swept by tickle and potentially treacherous currents, the team returned with new and stuning films of the seldom-seen wreck, archeological photographs and measurements of the hull and turret, 200 pounds of armor plate and an underwater camera that had been snagged in the wreck when it was first discovered four years ago.
They also discovered and brought up a bucket-sized brass lantern that maybe the same one whose red light signaled the last trace of the Civil War vessel before it foundered in a gale off Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31, 1862.
North Carolina state archeologist Gordon Watts said the Monitor is in "far better shape than we first thought . . . Most of the deck plating appears to be intact and the boilers and engine-room machinery appear to be sound. "We're very encouraged." He said he thinks chances are excellent for eventually finding clues to the final minutes of the men who went down with the ship.
The Monitor was being towed south to Charleston, S.C., at the time, bound for further blockade duty of the embattled Southern states.
Only nine months after her famous if inconclusive battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) in Hampton Roads, the revolutionary 170-foot cheesebox on a raft" was already historic.
With her screw propeller, rotating gun turret and low decks, she altered forever the course of naval warfare in ship design and wrote an end to the age of sail.
But she didn't float very well.
When the gale struck, she began shipping water heavily. Her tow ship, the paddlewheel battership Rhode Island, had to cut her adrift but sent a lifeboat back to rescue her 63-man crew.
On their third through the shrieking winds and towering seas, the rescuers from the Rhode Island saw the red distress light atop the Monitor's turret vanish in the night. At the ship's last location they found only an eddy in the storm tossed sea.
For the next 111 years no trace of the Monitor or the 16 men who sank with her was found.
Her sinking continued to spark the imagination of wreck hunters through the years, and in 1973 a Duke University expedition, outfitted with the arsenal of electronic boxes that power a modern undersea search, located the wreck 20 miles of Cape Hatteras and 220 feet deep.
The latest expedition returned to the site in mid-July with two surface ships, two small research submarines and divers skilled in working the hazardous depths beyond 100 feet.
The men and equipment were largely donated to the government by the Harbor Branch Foundation, a large private foundation in Fort Pierce, Fla., headed by an heir to the Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. It was overseen by officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Duke expedition had returned with only fragmentary television film of the Monitor, capsized on the ocean floor, her characteristic turret askew beneath the wreck.
A later U.S. Navy survey, using the reserach vessel, Alcoa Seaprobe - a sort of modified Glomar Explorer - compiled a photo-mosaic of the wreck viewed from above.
The NOAA-Harbor Branch expedition set cut to do much more, including a painstaking photogrammetric survey of the wreck, detained photography of the outside and a few visible inside portions of the ship, and the rising of a loose metal armor plate for metallurgic analysis. Knowledge gained from these tasks, according to NOAA officials, would permit government scientists who have jurisdiction over the wreck site better to weigh later decisions on whether to attempt later decisions on whether to attempt to raise the Monitor or excavate its a "chcologically on the ocean floor.
The expedition succeeded on every count despite storms and 10-foot seas that regularly halted diving, quixotic underwater visibility that ranged from 150 feet down to four feet and ocean bottom currents that varied vastly in strength and direction as the Gulf Stream eddied over and round the wreck.
"Weather here doesn't give you much of a break," said Roger Cook, operation direction for Harbor Branch. "We averaged about one bad day for every good day we had."
But that, as it turned out, was enough. After a wreck of unmanned site reconnaissance with a remotely controlled underwater TV camera, the ships lowered their small manned submarines, each the size and approximate shape of a rotorless, bubble cockpit helicopter adorned with rocket tubes.
Moving slowly over and around the ship like some species of ocean floor insect, the subs peered into the wreck with manipulator arm floodlights while the scientists photographed, measured and wrote.
Then, last Wednesday, Harbor Branch diver Gene Melton, 32, of Vero Beach, Fla., flooded the airlocks of one of the subs and swam out of the vessel toward the flood-lit wreck. Tethered to the sub, and breathing a helium-oxygen mixture to prevent the disorienting and self-destructive "rapture of the deep" (nitrogen narcosis), he swam to the wreck, taking flash pictures at predetermined points. There was no sign, he reported later, of remains of the Monitor's crew.
At the end of the hour-long dive, Melton re-entered the sub's pressurized airlock. The sub was raised to the deck of the ship and mated to an on-board decompression chamber where Meton underwent four hours of decompression to prevent the "the bends" - formation of nitropgen bubbles in the bloodstream of divers who ascent too rapidly from the pressureized environment of the ocean deep.
Other dives followed, concluding Tuesday morning with the retireval of the armor plate, a $2,000 underwater camera lost in the wreckage by the Duke expedition, and the lantern, which one of the manned subs discovered half buried 50 feet from the Monitor's turret.