ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT- The Navy’s huge hospital ship lived up to her name Friday, providing a clean place to rest, food and creature comforts to the first four rescue workers from the World Trade Center collapse — two New York firemen, a Red Cross worker and one other unidentified rescue worker.
Since the Comfort set out from its Baltimore base Wednesday, its mission has changed repeatedly, but none aboard would argue that the heroes sorting through the rubble of the center’s towers badly needed their services.
One of the first arrivals was Barry Crumbley, government liaison of the American Red Cross of Greater New York. He’d had very little rest since Tuesday, when two hijacked jetliners slammed into the towers, triggering an explosion and fire that destroyed the massive structures.
After the first jet smashed into the World Trade Center, Crumbley went straight to Red Cross headquarters and boarded one of the first emergency vehicles heading downtown.
Crumbley’s urgency was two-fold — not only was he an aid worker vital to the disaster scene, but his wife had called him from the 86th floor of World Trade Center Tower One.
She had felt a rumble. Her office was beginning to fill with smoke. Crumbley told her to get out.
He saw the tower fall not knowing if his wife had made it.
Renee Taylor, an employee with the Port Authority, started down as soon as she hung up the phone. From a vantage point not far from the site, Taylor watched the tower crumble in a thunderous cloud of smoke.
She hoped her husband had not been buried in the rubble.
It was not until later that afternoon that Crumbley heard through relatives that his wife, Taylor, was safe.
At 6 p.m. he heard her voice.
“I didn’t cry until yesterday,” Crumbley said, prompted by the selfless act of a Miami SWAT team member who had driven up from Florida to help and who he saw doing a television interview.
“He was just directing traffic,” Crumbley said. “He said he didn’t mind.”
“The whole death thing, I know it,” said Crumbley who worked in the Medical Examiner’s office for 12 years. “But you don’t get used to it.”
Crumbley and the others picked out beds, and were guided by arrows to the services the Comfort has to provide: snack foods, bottled water, clean pajamas, slippers, a towel and toiletries.
Lt. Cmdr. Steve Gottlieb said he knew when he and four others from the Comfort visited the center of the collapse Friday morning that there were going to be a lot of people like Crumbley.
“It was like the pictures of Berlin and London during World War II,” said Gottlieb, head of patient administration on the Comfort.
“There are a lot of very tired firefighters and policemen down there,” Gottlieb said. “We seem to be the big story now here but the real story is those guys.
“There’s a story in each one of them. You look at them and you see it. They’re amazing. They just keep going.”
That glimpse of disaster changed the ship’s entire mission. The Comfort finally docked at Pier 92-south in midtown Manhattan Friday morning.
“(Rescue workers) were sleeping wherever they could. . .anywhere they could catch some shut-eye,” said Cmdr. Ralph Jones, a surgical oncologist from National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, who led the Comfort’s advance team into the rubble.
“Our role seemed readily apparent,” said Jones.
The medical personnel left aboard — most of the more than 600 medical staff that boarded the ship have left since the mission changed — are still concerned some rescuers may not come to take advantage of the Comfort because they are afraid that if they leave they won’t be able to get back, Jones said.
“There’s only the living and the dead (at the site),” Jones said.
“The people I think we’re here for are the rescue workers, people with psychological stress,” Jones said.
“There’s a point of diminishing returns,” he said, explaining that some of the rescuers were so tired they were delirious.
Specially trained U.S. Navy counselors are aboard the ship to help deal with any of the psychological or emotional problems the sailors or rescue workers might have.
The impact was so great for Jones that he wants other crewmembers to see it.
“We’re trying to get people to the scene to see what they’re working for,” Jones said. “Once they see it they will be energized and will work forever.”