Originally created 07/15/06

Hunley's forward hatch might have been opened



CHARLESTON, S.C. - Scientists say they may have found an important clue in the mystery of why the Confederate submarine Hunley sank 140 years ago after making history by sinking an enemy warship in battle.

Archaeologists and others working to restore the submarine recovered six years ago from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Sullivans Island have found evidence that the forward hatch might have been opened intentionally on the night the sub sank.

The forward hatch is covered in a thick layer of sand and other ocean debris, but X-rays show the hatch is open about half an inch, according to a news release Friday from the Friends of the Hunley.

Earlier reports said rods that could have been part of the hatch's watertight locking mechanism were found at the feet of the sub's commander, Lt. George Dixon.

If the hatch was intentionally unlocked, there are several possible explanations.

Dixon could have opened it to see if the 40-foot, hand-cranked vessel was damaged when it rammed a spar with a black powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864, becoming the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship. Or Dixon could have opened the hatch to refresh the air supply in the eight-man crew compartment or to signal that it had completed its mission.

An emergency also could have led the crew to open the hatch to get out. But because the second escape hatch was found in the locked position, that theory seems less likely.