NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCBD) – Crews working to restore the H.L. Hunley submarine in North Charleston have uncovered a new clue which may help explain its untimely demise.
The new discovery, made through conservators with Clemson University, resulted from a long and painstaking process of removing concretion – a rock-hard layer of sand, shell and sea life – that encased the submarine over a 136-year period as the vessel laid at the bottom of the ocean floor.
Upon its removal, crews discovered clues which helped them piece together events that led to the loss of the world’s first successful combat submarine, according to a press release from Friends of the Hunley.
It was revealed on Monday that a broken pipe may have caused water to pour into the submarine that night the crew perished after striking the USS Housatonic in 1864.
The in-take, the press released stated, was meant to fill the forward ballast tank with water. But scientists found a nearly 1-inch gap from where the pipe should have been mounted on the side wall of the vessel. They say that may have resulted in the sinking of the sub and death of the crew.
However, they say the new evidence is non-conclusive because there is a chance the pipe became disconnected slowly over time while the Hunley was lost on the ocean floor.
“Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when investigating what led to a complex 150-year-old sinking. This is a very significant discovery that will help us tell the full story of the Hunley’s important chapter in naval history,” said Clemson University Archaeologist Michael Scafuri.
Still, that broken pipe discovery has intrigued archaeologists because it could offer new information about whether or not the crew drowned instead of died from lack of oxygen.
“If the pipe did burst the night of the attack, the submarine would certainly have taken on water,” the release stated. “But would it have been enough to drag the vessel down to the ocean floor? Researchers at the University of Michigan, who partnered with Clemson University and the Office of Naval Research on the Hunley investigation, say yes.”
Researchers calculate it would have only taken between 50 to 75 gallons of water to down the submarine. They say using the size of the hole and dozens of other factors in their modeling, concluded three minutes of unrestricted flow through the breach would sink the vessel.
“Given the size of the hole, however, the water could have been significantly slowed with a cloth or other item to block it,” the release stated. “The crew did not have the valves set to bilge in order to pump water out of the crew compartment.” A move they most certainly would have taken to save their lives.
The H.L. Hunley disappeared the night of 1864 after sinking the USS Housatonic, marking the first time a submarine successfully sank a warship while in combat. The vessel remained lost for more than a century until author Clive Cussler located it off the coast of Charleston in 1995.
Crews worked to raise the Hunley in 2000 where it was sent to laboratory in North Charleston for preservation efforts and extensive research.