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Crime writer solving mystery

Patricia Cornwell plans to donate a substantial sum to investigate the sinking of the Hunley.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2006 16:55 IST
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Best-selling crime author Patricia Cornwell said Tuesday she will donate at least $500,000 (€420,239) to help researchers solve the mystery of the sinking of the Confederate submarine Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship.

"This is a crime scene and you are doing an autopsy on that submarine," Cornwell told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from New York.

"It's much like Jack the Ripper- you take the best modern science and apply it to a very old investigation and see if you can make the dead speak after all these years," she said. The eight-man, hand-cranked sub rammed a spar with black powder into the Union blockade ship Housatonic off Charleston on February 17, 1864. The Hunley never made it back from the engagement. The sub was located off Charleston 11 years ago and raised in 2000.

Cornwell, whose 20 crime books include the fiction series featuring Virginia medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, often conducts research in working labs to give her books added realism. She visited the Hunley in its conservation lab a month ago and worked with Dr. Jamie Downs, the coastal regional medical examiner for the state of Georgia who has worked on the Hunley project. Cornwell said one of the purposes of her donation is to bring in equipment such as high-tech computers that might help solve the mystery of the sinking. That equipment includes an infrared device able to show structural weaknesses in metal.

She also said she may recruit other scientists she has met over the years- including experts in metal from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory- who may be able to help unravel the Hunley mystery. "They may not find anything that answers the question," she said. "I'm simply saying this should not be put to rest without us doing everything we can to try to figure out what happened to the Hunley and what killed these eight people on board." There are generally two theories about the sinking. One is that the glass 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.

In December, scientists said that in removing encrustation from the front conning tower, the view port glass was missing. If shattered glass is found at the bottom of the sub, it could indicate it was broken during battle. But if it is found largely intact, it might indicate it broke when the sub was sinking. The floor of the sub is still encrusted with hardened sediment. A Thursday news conference was scheduled to discuss Cornwell's involvement in the project.

But she said in the interview there were no plans to write a book about the Hunley, like her 2002 book that explored the identity of Jack the Ripper, who killed at least seven prostitutes in London's East End in 1888.

Her interest, she said, is solely to solve the mystery of the Hunley's sinking.

"We owe it to those eight men who died and we owe it to history."