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Bringing Comfort to New York City

Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort steams into New York City Sept. 14, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Preston Keres) The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort steams into New York City Sept. 14, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It left from Baltimore harbor the morning of 14 Sept to assist in the medical care of injured survivors, but the mission of the 1,000-bed Comfort soon changed to a humanitarian mission to assist in the medical care of survivors and first responders, dubbed “Operation Noble Eagle.” (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Preston Keres)

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American Airlines Flight 11, carrying 81 passengers and 11 crewmembers, slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan shortly before 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001.   About 15 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles, with 56 passengers and nine crewmembers on board, crashed into the South Tower.  Both towers eventually collapsed in a shower of debris and plume of thick dust.

It was a day America will never forget. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the terrorist attack on New York City.  Relief and rescue teams rushed to the scene of the attack from all over the country.  New York City firefighters and police frantically searched for survivors.  In the next few days, hope began to fade.  The incredible heat and magnitude of the crashes tore apart two of the world’s tallest buildings was overwhelming, and there were very few survivors.  Our world would be forever changed.

USNS Comfort is activated in response to terrorist attack

Initially leaving Baltimore harbor to assist in the medical care of injured survivors, the mission of the hospital ship, USNS Comfort, soon changed.  The ship arrived at Pier 92 on the west side of Manhattan at about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2001 with 300 Navy medical personnel, mostly from National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland and 61 civilian mariners aboard. The mission, which started out with the hope of providing medical aid to possible survivors, ended up being a logistical mission for the 1,000-bed hospital ship. Regularly designed to care for war-wounded service members, Comfort provided immediate humanitarian relief for thousands of “ground zero” workers and other New York City personnel.

The ‘Floating Hospital,’ the USNS Comfort docks at Pier 92 on the west side of Manhattan at about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2001 with 300 Navy medical personnel, mostly from National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland [now Walter Reed Bethesda]. (U.S. Navy photo) The ‘Floating Hospital,’ the USNS Comfort docks at Pier 92 on the west side of Manhattan at about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2001 with 300 Navy medical personnel, mostly from National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland [now Walter Reed Bethesda]. (U.S. Navy photo)

 

Saturday, Sept. 15, was a busy day aboard the Navy hospital ship.  The Comfort’s casualty receiving area, normally used to give initial medical care and triage to patients, was converted into a check-in location. Trucks carrying donated clothing, toiletries, snack foods and other supplies arrived throughout the day.  Many of the rescue workers rushed to the disaster site from all over the United States with only the clothes they were wearing. 

As word about the ship's presence spread, more workers began arriving over the next few days. The ship’s clinic saw 561 emergency disaster workers for cuts, respiratory ailments, fractures and other minor injuries; and the Comfort’s team of Navy psychology and social work personnel provided 500 mental health consultations helping relief workers to mentally prepare before heading back to the disaster site. During the ship's three-week deployment to New York City, crewmembers provided food and shelter for more than 10,000 relief workers. Comfort's 24-hour galley also provided 30,000 meals and the ship's supply department washed more than 4,000 lbs. of laundry, often replacing torn shirts and pants as well as ripped boots with clothing donations from the American Red Cross.

Comfort’s flight deck personnel also assisted the city and other government agencies that required helicopter landings and layovers. In fact, the ship was designated by the City of New York as the secure location for emergency landings for VIP personnel.  The hospital ship also supported military efforts in the region, safely conducting 16 launch and recoveries for U.S. Marine Corps SH-60s and U.S. Army Black Hawks, as well as New York Police Department H-1 Aircraft.

Although most of the ship's crew was not permitted to leave the pier, some small groups were allowed to enter the disaster site. Navy Cmdr. Ralph Jones, Medical Corps, Director of Surgical Services on board USNS Comfort and an NNMC surgical oncologist, led a group of five crewmembers to “ground zero” to visually assess the damage.  Jones said the scene was unimaginable.

"All of a sudden, I had about 40 or 50 firefighters gathered around me, crying," reported Jones.  "They needed help and a break, but they were afraid that if they left the scene, they wouldn't be able to come back."  

Jones realized then just how important the new mission was for the Comfort, her crew, and the people they were helping. Navy Ensign Marge Faulkner, Medical Service Corps, a dietician at NNMC and a supply officer aboard the ship, said, "Everyone was trying to help out in whatever way they could."  When a crane that was normally used to bring supplies onto the ship broke down, sailors formed a human chain that went from the pier all the way to the stock rooms, and passed boxes of supplies, one-by-one, for hours. What started out as a mission to save lives, ended up being a call to care for – and comfort - a city in need. 

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

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Oleg Gutkin, a 24-year-old NNMC sailor who usually works in the hospital's warehouse said he could see his hometown of Brooklyn from the deck of the ship as it pulled into port.  He admitted that the entire crew seemed pretty tired, but the fact that they knew they were making a difference kept them going.  "The relief workers really appreciate what we're doing for them here," said Gutkin. "They talk to us and tell us how much we're helping. They know we care." 

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