ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT – More than 500 medical personnel had been ordered Wednesday to drop everything and get aboard the Comfort for a mercy mission to New York City’s devastated World Trade Center.
At midday Friday, all but 30 of the more than 600 total medical personnel aboard were ordered, just a few miles from Manhattan Island, to pack their bags and prepare to disembark. The mission had changed again.
The Comfort was going to be a place of respite for rescuers who’d worked around the clock to sift the rubble of the collapsed towers for survivors.
“We’ve learned in the Navy that when you’re talking about ship movements we’re flexible,” said Nancy Eldridge, public affairs officer at Naval Weapons Station Earle, in Colt’s Neck, N.J. The Comfort stopped for additional medical personnel and supplies at Colt’s Neck and was holding there Friday facing 25-knot winds.
The schedule and mission, dubbed Operation Noble Eagle, of the 894-foot converted supertanker have changed multiple times since it sailed out of Baltimore Harbor Wednesday afternoon. The fully equipped hospital ship was scheduled to dock in midtown Manhattan late Friday, where it will provide food, shelter and a resting place for rescue workers.
Lt. Cmdr. Mary Brantley, an officer in the intensive care unit from Petersburg, Va., had less than 24 hours to say goodbye to her 2-week-old first child to board the Comfort. But what was worse is that she hadn’t been able to talk to her husband, who was working in the Pentagon when a hijacked jet slammed into it Tuesday morning. Eventually, it was confirmed that he was all right.
“Your knees are like Jell-O, but you have to go do your job,” Brantley said. “You will see the best of Navy medicine come out here. This is what we’re trained to do.”
The ship, run by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and sailed by 61 civilian mariners, is 10 stories tall, painted white with large red crosses on its bow and flanks. It usually has 1,000 patient beds, but for this mission it would have just 250. It contains a blood bank, 12 operating rooms, intensive care unit, triage area, recovery rooms and a full radiology unit containing mobile X-ray machines, ultrasound and a CAT scan.
At 2 a.m. Friday, towering cranes hoisted about 400 pallets of medical and food supplies onto the ship from the massive pier jutting through the choppy waters in Colt’s Neck.
By late morning, more than 300 medical personnel had joined the 200 doctors, nurses and support staff who had boarded in Baltimore. All medical staff members are active-duty Navy personnel.
They arrived at Earle on 15 buses from Navy medical facilities along the Eastern Seaboard. The “critical core” of medical staff from National Naval Medical Center-Bethesda boarded Comfort in Baltimore.
“Join the Navy, see Bethesda,” joked Lt. Cmdr. Elizabeth Montcalm-Smith, a lab officer who runs the ship’s blood bank.
The Comfort is truly a floating high-tech hospital, as sophisticated as most on land. It even shoots X-rays onto phosphorus plates, instead of film, to be converted into digital form for telemedical conferences, said radiologist Cmdr. Tony Rowedder from Bethesda.
The biggest difference between it and a land-based hospital “is everything is basically tied or bolted down here,” said Lt. Cmdr. Cassandra Spears, staff nurse from Bethesda.
Before the news that many medics will be turning back, there was a strong camaraderie fostered by facing the unknown.
“We’ve been told we’re not sure what to expect, but to be there for each other,” said Petty Officer Jason Shevokas, 23, from San Antonio, based in Indian Head, Md. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re a big family.”
On the predawn bus ride from Bethesda, Shevokas was seated with younger, Less-experienced corpsmen and said they were in good spirits. A lot of medical personnel wanted to sail with the Comfort, but did not make the list.
“Everybody wants to be here,” said Cmdr. Teresa Buescher, a reconstructive surgeon from Chevy Chase. “People look at it as a way to do something good. . . . Morale is high. People want to be used.”
– 30 – CNS-9-14-01