'Invisible people' play a big role on hospital ship Work not yet over for those who take care of Comfort.

April 16, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

The band was playing, children were screaming and sailors dressed in crisp Navy uniforms gathered along the rails to wave to the crowd gathered at the Dundalk Marine Terminal to welcome home the USNS Comfort.

But the work was not over for the mariners who care for the hospital ship. On the bridge, Capt. Thomas J. Finger shouted orders to a rain-drenched crew struggling with mooring lines on the pier.

"You want to talk with me?" deck hand Jeffrey Jones asked incredulously. Cameramen and reporters had been pushing past him all morning on the way to interview the doctors and nurses aboard the ship. "We're the invisible people."

Their uniform consists of worn blue jeans, light blue work shirts, steel-toe shoes and green rain coats.

"We're basically taxi drivers," said Jones as he paused before returning to the deck to wrestle with mooring lines.

"We were glad to have the Navy as our passengers," quipped Michael Leslie, a mariner from Seaport, Maine. Leslie was anxious to be home. He was supposed to have been relieved from duty 2 1/2 months ago, but when the war ended, his relief was canceled.

Duty, for the most part, had been boring, he said. "If they didn't tell us we were in a war zone, we would never have known it," he said.

A 13-year veteran of the merchant marine, Finger was not surprised at the attention given the Navy personnel. "How can I put this diplomatically?" he asked, easing into his captain's chair on the Comfort's bridge. "This is a hospital ship. The stars are going to be the doctors and nurses."

The Military Sealift Command operates non-combat ships and the 894-foot Comfort is the largest under its charge. The mariners on board perform three jobs. They are the ship's stewards who prepare the meals, they take care of the deck and they oversee the engine room.

None of those jobs garners much glory. The cooks are accustomed to hearing the crew gripe about the food. More than one sailor noted he had lost weight during his service on the Comfort.

On deck, the merchant mariners swab the floors, move mooring lines, care for the life boats and assist helicopter landings.

Thirty of the mariners work in the engineering room. Only two are needed to operate the engines at any given time, but the engine crew also consists of plumbers and engineers who care for the huge systems.

The engine room of the Comfort is a vast network of pipes, cords and consoles. The ship chugged up the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Baltimore at between 10 and 11 knots, or about 12 to 13 mph.

The vessel is powered by three diesel engines and two BTC room-size steam boilers. The ship's four generators can create 4,000 kilowatts of power or enough electricity to light a small town. Four evaporators distill salt water and create 300,000 gallons fresh water daily.

"Tastes better than what you can get in the store," shouts First Engineer Jose Martinez over the roar of the engines.

He points to a grill sitting on one of the pipes. His crew also found the hot steam pipes perfect for brewing tea or grilling fish they caught while at sea.

Martinez, a member of the ship's crew for four years, had prepared the Comfort for the time when it would be called up for duty. He was impressed with its performance on the maiden voyage.

"I never had any doubts about the plant," he said. "It ran great."

Martinez is to remain with the ship after it moves to its lay berth in at Pier 11 in Canton. Once there, it will be connected to land by umbilical cords of wires for electricity. Its evaporators will be shut off and water will be brought on board. Martinez will help oversee the maintenance and repairs that will be needed.

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