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Team conducts ‘autopsy’ on Civil War sub

Scientists are looking at the mystery of the sinking of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship.
In this 2004 file photo released by the Friends of the Hunley, scientist Harry Pecorelli investigates ballast pipes and valves of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley in North Charleston, S.C., that are encrusted after decades on the ocean floor.AP / Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley
/ Source: The Associated Press

A team of scientists from Tennessee, including experts from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are looking at the mystery of the sinking of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship.

The group, which also includes scientists from the University of Tennessee and the Y12 National Security Complex, was here Monday examining the sub.

The visit is the result of the university's relationship with best-selling crime author Patricia Cornwell, who in February announced she would donate at least $500,000 to the Hunley project.

The scientists are looking at ways to remove the encrustation from the hull of the hand-cranked sub.

"This is a crime scene, and you are doing an autopsy on that submarine," Cornwell told The Associated Press last February.

Cornwell has been a supporter of the university and the National Forensics Academy, said Mike Sullivan, director of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center, part of the university's Institute for Public Service. Cornwell regularly visits Knoxville to talk with crime scene investigators attending training programs at center's National Forensics Academy.

Sullivan said Cornwell recently contacted him to see if scientists from the university and the federal facilities might be able to help with the Hunley.

"About a month or so ago, I took Patricia Cornwell to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to help her get acquainted with the tremendous forensic science capabilities there," Sullivan said.

Cornwell and Maria Jacobsen, an archaeologist leading the Hunley excavation, also recently visited Knoxville to talk with scientists from the three institutions. The scientists from Tennessee have expertise in metals and metallurgy. Scientists think the hull may provide clues what caused the Hunley to sink in 1864.

The eight-man sub used a spar to attach a black powder charge to the Union blockade ship Housatonic off Charleston. The Housatonic sank, but the Hunley sank as well.

The wreck of the sub was found off Charleston 11 years ago and raised in 2000.

Cornwell, whose works include a book about Jack the Ripper and a series of thrillers featuring the fictional medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, often conducts research in working labs to give her books added realism.

There are generally two theories about the Hunley sinking. One is that the glass port in the conning tower was shot out during the attack, allowing water to rush into the iron vessel. The other is that the crew ran out of air as they tried to crank the sub back to shore.