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Published: Saturday, 9/7/2002

Skilled divers who helped raise Monitor back for annual training

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PORTAGE, Ohio - U.S. Navy reservists who helped raise parts of the USS Monitor will be at the Portage Quarry this weekend for some slightly less glamorous work.

The divers will be involved in an annual training session at the quarry just south of Bowling Green.

“It's like a mobilization exercise for us and it's like an annual sabbatical too,” said Navy Cmdr. Chuck Wirtz, who heads the 28-person mobile diving and salvage unit based in Cleveland. “This is a fun weekend for us. This is kind of a kickback and payback weekend.”

The divers, who come from all over Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York, are trained to assist in search and recovery efforts that have included the crash of TWA Flight 800 into the Atlantic in 1996.

Over the last three years, some 18 divers from the unit have worked on the massive effort to raise parts of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor from the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast.

Mr. Wirtz said he and most of the other divers jumped at the chance to be part of the effort to preserve an important relic of naval history and to get the kind of training that comes with diving at a depth of 250 feet.

Naval divers dismantled parts of the naval warship so that key parts of it could be raised and preserved.

“It's extremely physical work,” he said. “You're in very strong currents. It's just very arduous work, and what some people forget is that you don't have gravity on your side.”

Mr. Wirtz said he was one of the last divers to work on the battleship's 32-ton steam engine before it was raised last summer. He also helped uncover the ship's massive gun turret, which was brought to the surface this summer.

The Monitor sank while being towed to North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862, and was discovered by Duke University scientists in 1973.

The training exercise at Portage Quarry won't be quite so challenging. The divers will be in relatively clear water at depths of no more than 60 feet, Mr. Wirtz said.

Jeff Rice, owner of the quarry, said the reservists have been coming to Portage for 14 years.



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