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Army hunts for treasure in moat at Fort Monroe
By Corinne Reilly
The last time the military dredged the old moat here, in 1979, the list of finds was decidedly sexier: 19th-century Parrott rounds, small-arms ammunition, Civil War-era cannonballs.
Standing near the water Thursday morning, Rob Reali displayed for a few reporters what his team pulled up this time: three old bicycles, a steel-toed boot, a television set.
"Not nearly as cool," Reali conceded. "But we're not done yet."
The U.S. Army will officially leave Fort Monroe and hand it over to the state in September. Before it does, it must make sure nothing dangerous - most important, live ordnance - is left behind. So for the first time in 30 years, the military is digging into the moat's muddy floor to see what's there. The work started Monday and will wrap up by Sunday, said Reali, a civilian with the base's public works department who is overseeing the cleanup.
The moat, of course, is one of the base's best-known and oldest features. Its tall stone walls were erected in the 1820s to protect the original fort. "There's a certain allure - a real curiosity about what's down there," Reali said. "People have been waiting for this."
So far, though, the Army's land-based cleanup efforts, which wrapped up last year, have proved more interesting. They included the recovery of a buried cannon and live munitions.
Reali figures the moat is yielding fewer historical finds because most of them were probably unearthed during the 1979 dig. They've since been placed in the fort's Casemate Museum.
But the '79 search wasn't exhaustive. "There's a chance there's ordnance still down there," Reali said. "And before we turn this place over, we need to be sure."
So last August, Fort Monroe surveyed the moat with magnetic sensors and sonar. The assessment uncovered dozens of points for further exploration. A team of private contractors, most of them former Navy divers and explosives experts, is now digging.
It's not a glamorous job, or an easy one. Dressed in wet suits, the divers begin in a small motorboat above the potential dig spot. They use magnetics and feel around with wooden poles to try to determine what's below.
In some cases, they can figure it out without getting wet, and if they're positive it's nothing dangerous - a steel pipe or plate, for instance - they leave it be.
But if they're not sure, they must wade in. In most places, the water is 4 to 5 feet deep.
"When it's cold out, like it is now, it really chills 'em," Reali said. If the divers find something they think could explode, Reali said, the base will evacuate nearby buildings before bringing the object up.
"It's unlikely," he said. "But this place has a long history. So it's certainly possible."
Corinne Reilly, (757) 446-2949, email@example.com