Local News

Divers Risk Lives to Preserve Sunken USS Monitor

Posted August 22, 1999 7:00 a.m. EDT

— Divers off the North Carolina coast are trying to preserve and salvage one of the country's most famous shipwrecks, theUSS Monitor.

"Hatteras is noted for its weather. That's why it's the graveyard of the Atlantic," said Capt. Dan Aspenleiter.

Aspenleiter takes divers to the grave of one of the nation's most famous shipwrecks, the site of the USS Monitor. The Civil War battleship sank during a storm in 1862just 19 miles off the coast in 240 feet of water.

"The Monitor was one of the most unique ships of the 19th Century," said Aspenleiter.

The Monitor was one of the first steam-powered, ironclad battleships, and researchers say strong currents are threatening to destroy the historic wreck.

"We feel like it's going to collapse. It's just a matter of time. It could be next year or 5 or 10 years, but if we don't take some action, we're going to lose the whole wreck," said John Broadwater, sanctuary manager.

"The first time I dove, the Monitor was absolutely exciting, and it was one of the best dives I'd ever done," said diver Kyle Creamer.

Creamer and his companions are elite divers who have special training in deep diving. They breath a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. They carry all of that, about 225 pounds, on their backs.

"You're out here in the ocean, and the ocean is a formidable foe. You have to give it some respect," said Creamer.

"It's not going to be one of our better days today," said Aspenleiter.

Aspenleiter would soon find out how right he was. Weather conditions created strong currents.

"We've got to get down there and get the work done," explained Creamer.

"They'll do a 25-minute bottom time. We'll see them back up here in about 2 hours," said Cindy Creamer.

Because they can only spend a short time on the bottom, divers work quickly to collect data in the silent sanctuary. Then, they ascend slowly, stopping often.

Soon, it became clear that a diver was missing. Crew members on the boat scanned the water in silence. Two people in a dinghy searched the surface.

A stand-by diver was sent in to help, but as more time passed, everyone grew more concerned.

After about an hour of frantic searching, the lost diver sent a lift bag to the surface to let everyone know that he was OK.

Everyone was relieved when the diver was rescued and safely returned to the boat.

"All my equipment was working well, but it just didn't go according to plan," said diver John Chluski.

Finally, the whole team was back on board, and the mission was back on track.

"It was excellent, a nice dive, a beautiful wreck. Lots of good work done on that one, very productive," said Creamer.

For Aspenleiter, it is all in a day's work when you work in the graveyard of the Atlantic.

"My job is to get them out there, get them overboard, pick them up and get them home," said Aspenleiter.

It was a job well done.

In 1975, the USS Monitor was the first and only shipwreck to be declared aNational Marine Sanctuaryby the federal government. That means it will be preserved.

Next year, the crew hopes to bring up the Monitor's engine. All of her artifacts are on display at theMariner's Museumin Newport News, Va.