BALTIMORE – Thomas Lucas of Bel Air, hoisted his 5-year-old son, Payton, to his shoulders. He kissed Payton’s hands while the boy clung to his neck and then chased him in circles, both sporting ear-to-ear grins.
After being separated for three weeks, the two now seemed inseparable — even while Thomas Lucas, the flight deck officer aboard the USNS Comfort, tried to explain how his life was upended
when duty called.
The Comfort returned to Baltimore Tuesday evening. It had provided food, comfortable beds and healing for rescuers at the World Trade Center towers, which collapsed Sept. 11 after two hijacked jets crashed into them.
The ship’s return to its home port of Baltimore brought another kind of relief, this time for the families of those called to Operation Noble Eagle.
Lucas, 29, was supposed to move out of his house Sept. 14, but instead, on Sept. 12, he sailed to New York with the hospital ship Comfort.
The previous day, terrorists cut down the twin towers in an audacious attack. For nearly three weeks the ship provided basic services for rescuers working at “ground zero.”
Lucas, a single father permanently assigned to the ship, had only hours to make arrangements for Payton and figure out how his household would move while he was 200 miles away.
Payton, with the family friend who watched him while his dad was away, waited with the seven tour buses and dozens of friends and family for the ship’s excruciatingly slow approach to the Dundalk pier.
Finally, the nearly 400 members of the 894-foot hospital ship’s crew hustled down the gangway.
With Payton sitting on his shoulders holding his dad’s souvenir NYFD (New York Fire Department) baseball cap, Lucas explained how friends went to his house, packed all of his things, stored them in their garages and turned in his keys to the landlord.
Payton stayed with Edmond Sadekoski, spouse of another Comfort staff member and the volunteer ombudsman for the ship’s permanent crew. Sadekoski also was caring for his own 4-year-old son, Edmond, while his wife Melissa sailed to New York with Lucas.
When the ship’s arrival time Tuesday changed from early afternoon to late afternoon to early evening, Sadekoski called the two-page list of phone numbers to advise families.
“I’m just around if families need me,” Sadekoski said modestly.
Milton England of Clinton, heard about the Comfort’s late arrival from Sadekoski, so his son and daughter, Milton, 9, and Crystal, 2, did not have to wait too long to see their mother Ruth waving from the deck.
“It’s tough being a single dad,” England said, even if it is only for three weeks.
“She doesn’t have any idea that we’re here,” said the former Navy sailor who works at the National Institutes of Health. “She thought I’d be home getting the kids ready for bed and making Milton do his homework, but that can wait until tomorrow morning. This is more important.”
“I hope there is no more in the next year and a half because then she’s out,” England said, explaining that his wife, Ruth, is working on a master’s degree in health care management.
However, with the talk of war intensifying daily, England knows that there is a chance the hospital ship might be reactivated. The Comfort sailed to the Persian Gulf in 1991 for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
“I hope the Mercy goes next,” England said, referring to the Comfort’s sister ship, based in San Diego.
Operation Noble Eagle, the name of Comfort’s New York mission, was the longest Thomas Lucas had been away since he got full custody of Payton.
“I love the kids,” said Lucas, who is also commissioner of his son’s T- ball league in Bel Air. “I do it so they can enjoy the same freedoms we have.”
Darkness had fallen, but Melissa Sadekoski was still moving pallets of supplies on dock with a forklift. Her husband took their tired son for a walk to spell his impatience.
Lucas, who had to stay on the ship Tuesday night, tried to detach his clinging son before returning to the Comfort, but Payton was not cooperating.
Finally he agreed to take him aboard for a few minutes to avoid a scene.
With a big smile Lucas said, “Starting tomorrow I’m taking two weeks leave.”