`An opportunity to help our own'

Hospital ship Comfort sent from Baltimore on hurricane relief mission

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Its white hull towering above Baltimore Harbor, the USNS Comfort took on truckloads of bottled water, food and medical supplies yesterday in preparation for a mission to provide medical relief to the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast.

The ship, making its first excursion since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, was to steam out of the harbor as early as last night on a trip that could take five or six days.

"It's a tragedy and an opportunity to help our own," Cmdr. Ben Feril said on the quarterdeck of the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship.

On shore, the blacktop was covered with pallets stacked with water bottles brought by the latest in a procession of tractor-trailers to pull up to the ship over the past two days. Crane operators were busy hoisting supplies to the ship's deck.

Capt. Thomas Allingham, commander of the ship's medical facility, said he does not yet know the Comfort's destination or its precise role. Details will emerge as the ship makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're not sure where we're pulling into, but it will be determined later on where we can have the most benefit," Allingham said.

But he said the crew, which includes nurses, internists and specialists of every description, expects to treat dehydration, gastrointestinal disease and injuries resulting from the disaster, as well as heart ailments, kidney disease and other chronic conditions.

The Comfort will leave Baltimore with 270 military personnel and 63 civilian mariners who navigate and maintain the ship. Additional crew will embark in Mayport, Fla., Allingham said.

Doctors, nurses and other personnel are coming mainly from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which also supplied much of the medical crew in the Persian Gulf. In 56 days, the ship treated 700 patients, including 200 injured Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war.

During its deployment to New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Comfort provided food, lodging and medical care to emergency rescue crews. Allingham said the ship could serve a similar function this time: "We're certainly capable of doing that if FEMA wants us to."

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