CHARLESTON -- Crane operators hoisted the H.L. Hunley three feet into the air on Wednesday, the first step in a two-week process to stand the Confederate submarine upright.
It was the first time the submarine has moved in nearly 11 years, and scientists watched anxiously -- calmed by the knowledge that the man at the controls had done this before.
Cecil Douglas of Parker Rigging Co., who controlled one of the two cranes that lifted the Hunley, is the same person who put the sub into its tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on Aug. 8, 2000, just hours after it was lifted out of the Atlantic Ocean.
This time, Douglas said, was easier.
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"I would say it's a walk in the park for us," said Douglas, a crane manager for Parker Rigging. "It's a lot lighter than it was last time."
When the sub was recovered, it was a sealed time capsule, filled with sand, sediment and artifacts. Since then, scientists have removed several pieces of the sub and completely excavated its interior, recovering the crew and 2,000 artifacts.
The sub was raised at a 45-degree angle, as that's how it was found and scientists did not want to risk moving the artifacts inside. No one knew exactly how fragile the iron sub would be after more than a century in salt water.
But now the the 148-year-old Civil War-era vessel has to be set upright and taken out of its lifting truss to complete the restoration.
"Nothing else can happen until we rotate that submarine," said Paul Mardikian, the Hunley Project's senior conservator.
Next scientists will assemble the new track that will hold the sub and then switch out the straps that cradle it. Its port side will be lowered slowly until its keel rests on the track and it is standing completely upright for the first time since 1864.
The clock is ticking on the project. While the Hunley is raised off the tank floor, it cannot be completely submerged in water, which is how scientists control the corrosion process. Mardikian set up sprinklers inside the sub and crews are constantly hosing it off with fresh water.
The Hunley's truss is now propped up on wood blocks, but the cranes maintain tension to make sure it doesn't move. And the old truss will remain suspended over the sub for several weeks after the rotation as a safety precaution. Scientists will take no chances with the Hunley.
But things are looking good for now, and the plan that took more than a year to develop has gone off without a hitch. Mike Drews, the Clemson manager at the lab, said the track to hold the Hunley should be finished by tomorrow.
Replacing the straps on the sub will start Sunday and the crew should be ready to start inching the sub upright by Wednesday.
"So far, everything's going according to Hoyle," Drews said.