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The Nation | Science File

Historic Sub Yields Asphyxiation Clues

March 08, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

A watch recovered from the wreck of the Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley hints that the vessel's occupants may have died from lack of oxygen rather than drowning, researchers said Friday. The Hunley was the first submarine to destroy an enemy vessel, sinking the Union ship Housatonic about 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1864, before disappearing.

The watch, which belonged to Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley captain, was recovered last year and was opened for the first time last week, said senior conservator Paul Mardikian of the Hunley Project. Mardikian said the minute hand stopped at 22 minutes after the hour and the second hand stopped at 20 seconds. The hour hand is badly damaged, but appears to be between the 6 and 9, he said, suggesting that the watch stopped the next morning, at the earliest.

"It's a miracle that the hands are even still here," Mardikian said. "They are quite damaged, but they are still here and fused to the face. There was a pocket of air trapped inside the watch. I believe that's the only reason the hands still exist after all these years."

Added South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission: "I believe the apparent time suggests the watch outlived the crewmen and continued to tick for many hours past their deaths. It also raises the possibility that the submarine may have remained less than flooded long after the demise of the crew. If the submarine had flooded shortly after the attack, it seems probable the watch would have stopped at a time closer to, but after, 8:45."

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