Owners hope USS Sanctuary will offer comfort

November 13, 1990|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

In the officer's barber shop aboard the USS Sanctuary, the shelves are stocked with combs and creams. A recent issue of Newsweek hangs on the magazine rack, ready for the next customer.

They are somewhat wistful symbols of the optimism the Sanctuary's new owners hold about their efforts to return the rusty, naval hospital ship to active, humanitarian duty.

The work will not be easy: the 46-year-old vessel has not sailed under its own power for 13 years, and putting it back into ship-shape will cost more than $10 million, not to mention a similar amount every year in operating costs.

But Life International, a Silver Spring-based, non-profit organization that bought the Sanctuary for the bargain price of $10 from the government's reserve fleet, is undaunted. Life International had the 520-foot-long ship towed to Baltimore earlier this year, tied it up to a pier off Childs Street, and began to rehabilitate it.

The last charity to accomplish such a mission -- Project Hope -- gave up its ship 15 years ago. It was a popular and visible symbol of American goodwill, but rising fuel prices, onerous union rules and other operating costs consumed half of the organization's $12 million budget in 1974. The ship was scrapped the next year, with one Hope official explaining that the group wanted to "maximize the use of donated money." Project Hope is still active as a land-based group, providing more care to more people than it could from the deck of a ship, a spokeswoman said.

Life International officials think they can solve the problems that forced Hope to call it quits. They insist that nothing can match the effectiveness of a great, white-hulled ship circling the globe with advanced medical equipment.

"You've got a floating Johns Hopkins. A ship is absolutely self-contained," said Robert N. Meyers, a minister and the founder/president of Life International.

His group is planning an international fund-raising effort and has begun assembling an ingenious network of volunteers and groups to scrape paint, overhaul engines, scrub down operating rooms and perform other work.

For example, an elevator union is fixing an elevator on board. The regional office of the Seventh-day Adventist Church closed one day and sent 41 workers over. Eleven divers from a U.S. Naval Reserve unit will do some underwater work. Some Job Corps centers will provide carpenters, accountants, plumbers and others who will receive their required practical training aboard the ship.

In all, Life International estimates that more than 80 percent of the refurbishing will be accomplished by volunteers.

A recent walk through the ship illustrated the work ahead. Tiles are coming up from the floor, wires are hanging from the ceiling, and splotches of orange primer dot the steel walls, ceilings and floors. The ship's radios are old crystal sets, and, while the surviving medical equipment is listed in "excellent condition" by Life International, the group concedes that the "status of major systems is uncertain."

Volunteers are already signing up as potential crew members, working for only room and board and a $150-a-month stipend.

Meyers thinks the ship can be safely operated with a crew of 35 or 40, instead of the 93 stipulated in Project Hope's union agreements. He has met with maritime union leaders who have pledged their cooperation as long as the crew is volunteer.

The ship's medical departments could be operated by a university as a teaching hospital, and research grants are being sought.

"It's going to be the flagship of Maryland's bio-medical technology," said Robert Mead, Life International's executive director.

The Navy looked at the Sanctuary in 1979 when it was shopping for a hospital ship. It found the ship too small and instead converted a pair of oil tankers, renaming one of them the USS Comfort. The Comfort is based in Baltimore and has been deployed in the Persian Gulf.

Under terms of the sale by the government, the Sanctuary can be repossessed for national duty. There is a remote chance the vessel will be called up for the Persian Gulf crisis. Mead jokes that this would not necessarily be all bad, saying, "They would not keep it forever and they would fix it up."

It would not be the first time the ship has seen action. Originally designed as a freighter, it was converted to a hospital ship while still under construction. It was launched in 1944 at Chester, Pa.

The Sanctuary evacuated American prisoners of war from Nagasaki following the atomic bombing of that Japanese city. Nearly 30 years later, it was the last U.S. Navy ship to leave Vietnam.

Life International wants to send the ship to the Third World for several years. It would be used to train medical professionals and to provide care, especially for children. Centers established in the host countries would remain after the ship left.

Talks are under way with Nigeria, which could become the first host country. The Sanctuary's new mission could begin in late 1992. Though it is the 10th most populous nation in the world, Nigeria has an average life expectancy of about 50 years and an infant mortality rate that is more than 10 times that of the United States.

It's that kind of statistic that motivates Meyers to push ahead with the project.

"I was 48 years old when I started. I'm 64 now. But it was worth it," Meyers said.

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