Originally created 04/27/97

Sub recovery plan debated



CHARLESTON, S.C. - The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship, could be back on land in 1999 if everything goes according to plan, the chairman of the commission to raise the vessel said.

"We have informally talked about the need to get a recovery plan in place and get out and get this boat within two years," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission.

Mr. McConnell said by that time, money for security at the offshore site will be running out and corrosion of the tiny sub will increase.

"It will either deteriorate at the hands of nature or the hands of plunderers," said Mr. McConnell, a Charleston Republican.

The Hunley and its nine-man crew were lost after the sub sank the federal blockade ship Housatonic in February 1864.

The wreck was discovered by shipwreck expert and author Clive Cussler off Sullivans Island two years ago, and a state-federal exhibition to the site last year confirmed it was the Hunley.

The results of a corrosion study released Saturday show the vessel can be recovered.

"The Hunley hull appears basically sound because of its rapid burial and stable interment," Mr. McConnell was told in a letter from Dan Lenihan of the National Park Service.

Officials say they believe much of the Hunley was covered with silt within a few months of sinking and the entire vessel covered within 10 years. The sub is corroding at a low but detectable rate, the study showed.

"All indications are that given a proper recovery plan and sufficient funding, recovery of the Hunley is feasible and desirable," Mr. Lenihan wrote.

"It's a green light to go forward," Mr. McConnell said.

The results were to be announced Saturday at a gala to generate some of the estimated $10 million it will cost to recover, preserve and display the vessel.

Mr. Cussler said bringing the sub back is not the hard part.

"I don't think it will be too difficult," he said. "It's fragile, and it's filled with sand. But the actual raising could be accomplished in a few months."

The commission will take proposals from scientific groups as to the best way to bring the Hunley back. There have been preliminary talks with the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum and the Charleston Museum about preserving and displaying it, Mr. McConnell said.

The site is monitored by infrared cameras and sensors on the ocean floor and protected by a webbing that cannot be burned or clipped, he said.

The question of why the Hunley never returned will remain until the sub is brought back.

Mr. Cussler said he believes the hand-cranked sub may have been swamped by waves from the federal frigate Canandaigua as the Union ship rushed to aid the Housatonic.

A window missing from the Hunley is the only visible sign of damage. But that could have let in water, causing the sub to flounder, Mr. McConnell said.

Whatever happened, happened quickly, he said. The dive keels were in a position indicating the sub was trying to get back to the surface.