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Stephen Garcia


The H.L. Hunley broke the surface at 8:39 that morning, and Warren Lasch could not believe what he was seeing.

There, just a few yards away, the lost Civil War submarine was suspended in its lift cradle, sleek and slender, encrusted with 136 years' worth of sand, shells and barnacles.

The Friends of the Hunley chairman, along with Sen. Glenn McConnell, had spent years preparing for the moment.

But that morning Lasch was nearly as amazed by the armada of boats and army of reporters, surrounding the sub -- a fleet that stretched all the way to Charleston Harbor, four miles away.

"We expected regional interest, not national and international stories," Lasch recalled earlier this week. "But it was not just a southern thing, it was a national thing, a science, history, mystery and research thing."

That pretty much sums up the Hunley project, which is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of that milestone today. The story of the long-lost Hunley -- the first successful combat submarine in history -- has captured imaginations for a decade now. It is the tale of a secret project, ground- breaking technology and lingering mystery. It has brought thousands of tourists to Charleston and generated an estimated $120 million economic impact for the state.

Along the way, the Hunley has become one of the premiere archaeology projects in the country.

A decade after the raising of the Hunley, the sub still draws international attention as a team of scientists continue their efforts to preserve the 147-year-old artifact and unlock its mysteries. The research into preserving its iron hull attracted the wind turbine industry to town. Science developed as part of the Hunley excavation even aided searchers at the World Trade Center site, proving that X-rays would not harm DNA.

On Friday, the Friends of the Hunley announced the next step in this long process: a plan to rotate the sub and remove the outer shell of concretion -- all that hardened sand and shell -- that covers its hull. Maybe then, scientists will finally figure out why the sub never returned to port.

That's just one of the questions that remain unanswered.

When the sub was discovered by a Clive Cussler dive team in 1995, people knew little about the ship or its past. No one knew exactly how the ship worked or even how many men were onboard -- no official plans survived.

The work of Hunley scientists since the raising has filled in many of those blanks.

It was built in Mobile, Ala., in 1863, a third-generation submarine designed by a New Orleans engineer named James McClintock. The Hunley was a privateer, which means it was a privately owned ship. A group of investors stood to make a great deal of money by breaking the blockade of the harbor. After killing the better part of two crews in test missions in Charleston Harbor, the third crew of the Hunley -- eight men, led by Lt. George E. Dixon -- sailed from Sullivan's Island on the evening of Feb. 17, 1864.

That night, four miles off the coast, the Hunley detonated a charge on the side of the USS Housatonic big enough to drive a train through. The ship sank in minutes, killing five, stranding more than 100.

Shortly after that, the Hunley disappeared -- and stayed missing until Cussler found it 131 years later.

It took five years after that to actually recover it. Friends of the Hunley and the state Hunley Commission hired the engineering firm Oceaneering International to recover the sub, which was buried under five feet of sand in 27 feet of water.

It was not an easy job. Scientists insisted the sub be raised in the same attitude as it rested below the sea -- listing to starboard -- for fear that movement would disturb the Hunley's interior, which was essentially where the entire investigation would take place.

Oceaneering planted platforms in the sand at either end of the sub and then sat the lift cradle over the top of the sub. For weeks, divers burrowed under the Hunley, placing lift straps under its belly.

When engineers decided it was too dangerous to lift the sub using a floating crane barge, the project was delayed well into hurricane season -- a fact that kept Lasch, McConnell and a team of dozens nervous for weeks. But when the jack-up crane Karlissa B, which had legs that sat firmly on the ocean floor, lifted the sub that morning, it all went off without a hitch.

On time, under budget and without any injuries, Lasch said.

These days, the sub's recovery seems easy compared with the work it has taken to decipher the clues left behind. The archaeology project is, in some respects, the envy of the scientific community. The team works in a well-equipped lab, the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the former Charleston Naval Base. It also is a true rarity: a complete shipwreck. And the Hunley's story is one of those unique chapters of maritime history.

"It would be like working on the Titanic," said Michael Scafuri, an archaeologist who has been with the project for 10 years. "It's one of the most significant finds of the Civil War period. I'd put it up there with the Monitor."

In fact, the Monitor project has taken tips from the Hunley crew on preserving their 19th-century ironclad.

Paul Mardikian, the senior conservator on the project, said one of the most remarkable things about the Hunley is the sheer scope of the job. Mardikian and his crew have been tasked with preserving iron, wood, cloth, organic material, paper, wax and a number of other materials -- all of which were submerged in saltwater for more than a century.

"I don't know of any other project that has the complexity of the Hunley," Mardikian said. "It's the most complete project I can think of."

Ultimately, though, McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said the project has been successful, not only because it brought science and history together but because of the team.

"We had the right people come together to break new ground and create a long legacy for this state," McConnell said.