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Comfort in the War Zone

Special to American Forces Press Service

ABOARD USNS COMFORT, NEW YORK, Sept. 21, 2001 – What started out as a mission to save lives is now a call to care for and comfort a city in need.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort passes the Statue of Liberty en route to Manhattan to provide support services to police, firefighters and other emergency personnel responding to the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The Comfort, based in Baltimore, arrived on station Sept. 14. Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Preston Keres, USN.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort left Baltimore for New York City at 3 p.m. on Sept. 12 carrying medical staff from commands all along the East Coast and 61 civil service mariners. At the time, Comfort's mission was to provide medical care to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, now called "Ground Zero."

By the time Comfort reached New York on Sept. 14, its orders were to provide support services to firefighters and emergency personnel. The crew converted the ship from a floating hospital to a rest center for possibly thousands of disaster relief workers.

The week since has been a lesson in readiness, flexibility and dedication for the crew. Every day, hundreds of police officers, firemen and government workers have passed through for hot showers, hot meals and a place to sleep.

"I couldn't believe what I was looking at," Petty Officer 2nd class Michael Kropiewnicki said of New York as the Comfort arrived. A baker, he said the city skyline had been a familiar sight as he grew up in Fairview, N.J.

About 70 people have been working 12-hour shifts in Comfort's galley. "We have a steady flow of rescue workers, firemen and policemen coming through who have spent the last week at Ground Zero," Kropiewnicki said. "We want this ship to be a refuge for them, a place where spirits are high and they can catch a break from the tragedy they have been in. Everyone coming on board is thanking us. It doesn't seem like they ever miss an opportunity to say thank you."

The Comfort's two chaplains normally minister to the crew and patients. "These sailors' families trust the care of their sons, daughters and loved ones to the Navy, and we are here to make sure each person on board is OK," said Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Salvador Aguilera. Their flocks now include thousands of relief workers who come aboard.

The chaplains celebrate a Catholic mass and conduct other religious services daily. The chapel is open 24 hours a day so the crew and visitors always have a place to go to worship.

"The best way we have found to comfort these visitors is to find them in the galley," said Chaplain (Lt.) David Stroud. "We just sit down with them and chat. Mainly they want to talk about home, their families and their jobs, so we just listen, and offer advice when they asked for it."

The two said they couldn't believe the destruction when they visited Ground Zero. "When I saw it on TV, I thought it was horrible," Aguilera said. "When I saw it in person, it was overwhelming."

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Aguilera returns to Ground Zero regularly to join other Catholic priests at the morgue in blessing the bodies of the dead. Because many relief workers have asked for a blessing before they leave the morgue and return to Ground Zero, the priests also provide that service 24 hours a day.

Though a kind of floating truck stop at the moment, with people coming and going at all hours, the Comfort is still foremost a hospital ship. A team of 17 staff its medical department and serve anyone who walks in day or night.

"We are mainly treating people with upper respiratory infections, dehydration or blisters on their feet," said Seaman Jason Kiel, a corpsman from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

"This weekend, two cops came in. One had passed out from dehydration, and the other blew his knee out while helping the first one. They were both really worn out crying from the stress of the last week, and they looked defeated," he said. "They started telling us their story. They had lost two fellow police officers from their department. It seemed like it was the first time they broke down and let it all out."

"That evening they came back with their entire crew. They gave everyone in our department an NYPD ball cap and a patch from NYPD Firearms and Tactics section," Kiel said. "It was like a ceremony. Everyone took pictures. They were all smiling and happy. It seemed like the first time they had smiled in a week. We were all smiling too. I feel like we are actually helping. I'm proud and honored to be working with all these great people."

"The people on this ship are amazing," New York police officer Kevin O'Keeffe said. "When we first came on board someone escorted us to the galley. It was like they rolled the red carpet out for us. As cops, we don't get treated like this unless it is Thanksgiving or Christmas and we're at home. We want to say thank you to everyone on the ship and in the military."

(Adapted from Military Sealift Command news stories by Petty Officer 2nd class Ellen Maurer and Petty Officer 3rd class Rebecca Whitney.)

The View From Staten Island

"I delivered sandwiches to the people building the World Trade Center as a kid and later worked there," said Capt. Robert Fay, master of the Navy fast sealift ship USNS Denebola. "It's mind-boggling."

Fay's ship is docked across New York Harbor at a Staten Island pier where a command center has been lodging and feeding up to 250 personnel daily. The command center was running out of room, so Fay and his crew volunteered to house some of the overflow. Denebola's current reduced-operating status calls for only a small maintenance crew, so 35 staterooms were empty.

On their first night as hosts, Sept. 14, the Denebola crew welcomed 65 New York firefighters, some of whom had been on duty 48 hours straight. "The firefighters' faces were blank as they boarded the ship," said Fay, a native New Yorker. "They described Ground Zero as a war zone. We've been standing here watching helplessly across the harbor, so it feels good to help." (From a Military Sealift Command news release.)

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The Rescue Moles

By Cristina McGlew

Of the many tired, worn-out workers who've staggered up the ramps of Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort, one group posed an interesting picture. They wore colorful overalls, hardhats, protective gear and dress shoes.

They are the Rescate Topos -- Rescue Moles -- a team of four search and rescue workers from Mexico City who paid their own way on the first allowed flight out of Mexico City to New York to help their North American brothers and sisters. They made it, but their luggage, equipment and certifications didn't. The team eventually made its way to Comfort. Once checked in, members received toiletries and a place to sleep and eat.

The Rescate Topos formed after a devastating earthquake hit Mexico City in 1985. Since then, they have been to 15 disaster sites all over the world including India, Turkey, Colombia, Hungary and Japan to assist in search and rescue operations following major disasters.

While the Mexican Consulate worked on obtaining documentation for team members, the Comfort crew provided them extra clothing, shoes and protective gear. The Rescate Topos continue to use the ship to recharge after pulling 12-hour night shifts at Ground Zero.

Rescue Mole Guillermo Suchil said the group spends the night crawling on hands and knees and burrowing through the rubble in search of remains and any means of identifying them.

"It is a difficult thing, but people need closure, " said Suchil. "We are ready to help in any way we can."

(Cristina McGlew works for the Military Sealift Command in Washington.)

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