CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – According to the scientists studying the submarine, the crew did not operate the emergency keel release mechanisms the night they lost their lives in the experimental, 40-foot vessel.
The keel blocks will join public display starting this Saturday, July 20th during weekend tours, according to the news release. The blocks represent a significant breakthrough in conservation as well as an important clue for those working to solve the mystery of the Hunley’s disappearance.
The news release states that in 1864, the Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine with the sinking of the USS Housatonic. Historical records indicate the submarine’s crew signaled to shore they were on the way back home but instead they vanished without a trace, according to officials. The reason surrounding the Hunley’s loss has remained an intriguing maritime mystery for over a century.
Many theories have circulated over the years to explain the final moments that resulted in the death of her eight-man crew. A popular theory is the Hunley got stuck on the sea bed, unable to rise, the report added.
Officials also believe that cranking the submarine over 4 miles to their target would have been physically exhausting to the crew. To ease the stress, they planned their approach with the outgoing tide, officials added.
It is possible they waited on the bottom of the ocean floor for the tides to turn so they could use the current to help get back home, the report said. If they somehow got stuck, they likely would have attempted to drop some of the heaviest keel blocks to help rise back up to begin the journey back to land.
However, the blocks were found fastened in place, meaning they did not attempt to use this emergency function. For some reason, the crew did not think it would help or were unable to start this emergency procedure.
The keel is made up of eight separate cast iron pieces, with a few of them weighing over 500 pounds, according to the news release. By using a turnkey function inside the crew compartment, three of the keel weights could be quickly released. The report stated that it would enable the crew to drop over 1,000 pounds of weight in the event they were struggling to come back up after a dive.
“The Hunley designers thought about problems that might arise and I think they understood the need for contingency plans. The keel blocks are a perfect example of the many innovative design features we see installed on the submarine,” said Michael Scafuri, a Clemson Archaeologist working on the Hunley Project.
This particular emergency function was not used. The question scientists must now answer is why. The report added that studies of the human remains show no new injuries to the crew and no signs of panic, suggesting that they did not know they were in trouble until it was too late.