Rusting away in harbor, ship remains vessel of dreams

January 12, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez

More than 15,000 tons of hope sit dead in the water along a spooky stretch of South Baltimore harbor known as Fairfield.

Lashed to bollards down at the gray and battered end of Childs Street is the Sanctuary, an old American hospital ship that was one of the first vessels to visit the nightmare of Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb. A generation later it was a workhorse of the Vietnam War, treating more than 25,000 casualties over four years.

Now it just sits in the Patapsco, 522 feet of potential good will.

In the mind of veteran good-deed-doer the Rev. Robert M. Meyers -- the Presbyterian minister who persuaded Congress to sell him the decommissioned ship in 1988 for $15 and a promise it would be used for "humanitarian purposes" -- the Sanctuary is a vision of health care and education for citizens of the

Third World.

"We've been there almost two years and nothing has happened, but I'm an optimist," said Mr. Meyers, the 63-year-old president of Life International, a non-profit charity organization in Silver Spring trying to put the project together. "I'm an eternal optimist."

But optimism meets the real world down in Fairfield, where, visible to the right of motorists southbound out of the Harbor Tunnel, the Sanctuary is a rusting dream in need of at least 7 million scarce, recession dollars before it can go anywhere.

Mr. Meyers, who has scores of volunteers and a half-million dollars in donated medical equipment on standby, says he is looking under every rug for loose change to get the Sanctuary back to sea.

"I went to Venezuela and told them that if they gave me $7 million in oil, we'd sell it, fix up the ship, and send the Sanctuary to their country for a year," he said.

The Venezuelans said they'd get back to him.

Mr. Meyers said that Gov. William Donald Schaefer told him the same thing more than a year ago, and he's still waiting to hear back from the governor, relying on a faith that allowed him to endure the 15 years that he waited for Congress to give him the ship.

What he wants from Mr. Schaefer is a powerful corporate leader VTC to chair the fund-raising efforts for the ship, but with powerful corporate types scrambling to keep businesses together, that hasn't been easy.

A spokesman for the governor said that Mr. Schaefer has put out requests to the business community on behalf of the Sanctuary but has found no one even remotely willing to take on the ambitious project. The task is made more difficult because the mission of the Sanctuary, however virtuous, is directed overseas.

"It's a ship we shouldn't abandon. It can be [Baltimore's] goodwill ambassador and serve humanity, but the big problem in this economic downturn is how it's going to get paid for," said Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd. "The American people are hungry, and they're hurting, and they're not very happy about any foreign aid. Repeatedly, I'm hit with people saying let's keep our money here."

Mr. Meyers, who docks the ship for free with the blessing of the Maryland Port Authority and has come up with enough cash so far to pay insurance and utilities, said he is open to local alternatives for the vessel if the money can't be found to get the Sanctuary under sail.

But the picture of a vintage hospital ship with the word "LIFE" painted huge across a bright white hull as it steams into the Horn of Africa to heal unfortunates is just a bit more romantic than the image of poor Baltimoreans trudging down to Fairfield to have their teeth fixed and blood pressure checked.

"It could be a hospital here for low-income people. We could provide medical service to those who can't afford it," said Mr. Meyers. "But if the money can't be raised, and I don't think the recession should be an excuse, we could tow the ship to the Third World and save money that way."

Much of the ship's Vietnam-era medical gear, such as operating rooms, an X-ray department and dental clinic, remains in fairly good condition. Mr. Meyers said finding doctors and sailors willing to donate their time is not a problem, either.

Life International said it also has the money and volunteer labor to begin chipping and painting the Sanctuary hospital white, but it can't begin because the ship's free berth is right next to thousands of new Toyota cars parked on the dock and waiting to be moved to dealers.

The car company fears that the paint will blow over and mar the new vehicles, and Mr. Meyers is seeking a temporary berth away from the Toyota dock to paint the Sanctuary. It is one of the five sister ships of the almost legendary hospital ship Hope, which delivered medical care to developing nations around the world from 1958 to 1974.

Its mission, if realized, will differ from the Hope by delivering long-term service up to two years per country and by bringing in people for medical training. And with only six years of use on its 47-year-old boilers, two complete overhauls up through Vietnam and the rest of the time spent in mothballs, the folks at Life International think they can get good use out of the Sanctuary well into the 21st century.

"We want to get into much more of the sociology and anthropology than just medicine," said Robert Mead, a Baltimore publicist who has worked as a volunteer on the project. "If we know enough about the local taboos, maybe we can bring in some of the medicine men and make them paramedics."

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