USS Monitor. Return voyage for a watery relic?

SHE looks like a dead sunfish, belly-up on the bottom. But the USS Monitor could rise again.

The ship they nicknamed ``the iron coffin'' has rested for a century and a quarter under the temperamental seas sailors call ``the graveyard of the Atlantic.''

The Monitor helped change the course of naval warfare, in the first-ever encounter between two ironclads, when she fought to a standoff with the refitted Confederate Merrimack. Now, on the eve of a weekend-long commemoration of the battle's 125th anniversary, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are talking about raising the wreck, or significant portions of it, from its watery resting place.

This summer, an underwater drone will plunge into the waters off Cape Hatteras, N.C., and mount the most technologically elaborate exploration of the craft yet. Mapping, scientific filming, and gathering of artifacts will help solve mysteries about the ship's structure and contents and the challenges of raising her.

``If we want to raise the Monitor, the technology is there, the capability is there. All we need is the commitment and resources,'' says Monitor project director Ed Miller, estimating the cost at ``as much as one F-14 - about $20 million.''

Mr. Miller is quick to add that the entire ship is ``not going to come up, get dewatered and towed into Norfolk [Va.], so we can open the doors and invite people in.'' But over the course of the next 10 years, salvaging operations could bring her piecemeal into land-based museums.

A panel of engineering experts convened by NOAA in 1980 concluded that the ship was too fragile to be raised and that she should stay in her protected gravesite until a new technology is developed. That technology has come swiftly on stream in the intervening half decade, helped along by salvage operations as diverse as the recovery of the 16th-century warship, Mary Rose, off Portsmouth, England, in 1982 and pieces of the US space shuttle Challenger last year.

``Ocean engineering is a rapidly maturing industry, and great strides are being made,'' comments Chris von Alt, a research engineer in the deep-submersion laboratory at the Woods Hole [Mass.] Oceanographic Institution. ``It's very feasible to raise the thing, technologically.''

In 1978, Capt. Willard Searle - formerly the Navy's chief salvage officer, now a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - estimated the salvage cost at $10 million.

He calls the raising of the Monitor ``technologically feasible but economically ridiculous.''

The question before marine engineers at NOAA, as they prepare for their state-of-the-art underwater investigation of the wreck this summer, is not ``Can we'' but ``Should we'' raise the Monitor?

``We're in the business of preserving resources here,'' says Herb Kaufman, NOAA's acting chief of marine and estuarine management. He adds that the agency is concerned about making the Monitor available to future generations.

``Is it better to leave it subject to the environment than to risk destroying it'' in a salvage operation? Miller asks. ``After all, this is not just an artifact.''

Indeed, the Monitor represents a piece of history that has obsessed men like retired Capt. Ernest Peterkin, USNR, who acts as a consultant on the Monitor project. Captain Peterkin has collected and published a massive volume of engineering drawings and has spent years piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of diary entries, drawing details, and artifacts that will tell the story of her construction and how the crew lived.

Not just these questions, but a mental image of the dark hulk semi-submerged in sand under 200 feet of water, holding a cache of mysteries in her riddled innards, draws men like Peterkin to the wreck.

``It's like opening one of the Egyptian tombs for the first time,'' Peterkin says.

``All I did was gawk,'' adds Miller, referring to his first close sighting of the wreck. He describes getting in the plastic bubble of the submarine that took divers down to explore the Monitor in 1983, ``descending into the dark, murky blue, and then seeing this huge, black shape. It was the Monitor, and it was an awesome experience. We talk casually about a turret 21 feet across, weighing over 20 tons. It's another thing to be next to it.''

That turret has broken off and lies wedged under the wreck, propping it up so that a man could walk upright under most of the vessel. Part of the turret and some of the ship are submerged in sand. Fish glide through the entrails of the craft. Scattered around the hull are pieces of the iron plating a half-inch thick and as large as a typical living room rug.

Several expeditions have yielded such artifacts as the Monitor's anchor, a signal lantern, and a mustard bottle, as well as providing excellent graphic evidence of the condition of the wreck and the location of various components.

An unmanned Navy vehicle called the Deep Drone will be used, because the robot can work continuously, without the need for extensive downtime for decompression required for human divers. Using a three-dimensional electronic grid to pinpoint the location of the robot, and guided by on-deck computers, the cameras will make a 70-millimeter photo map.

The ship's resting place, and a one-mile cylinder of ocean around it, has been designated a national marine sanctuary under the jurisdiction of NOAA. The constantly shifting borders in the ocean and the ever-changing environment complicate management of the vessel and planning for her future.

An effort to generate private-sector funding and public support for the restoration of the Monitor has been launched by Ross Holland, former director of restoration on the Statue of Liberty project. Jack Cooperman, who directed the aerial photography for the film ``Top Gun'' and the miniature photography for ``The Winds of War,'' will orchestrate the filming of theatrical footage that might one day be the public's only access to the Monitor, should the decision be made to let her rest where she lies.

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