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Naval ship <i>Comfort</i> Provides Welcome Relief - 2001-09-20

In New York City, hundreds of firefighters, National Guardsmen and relief workers are finding a quiet place to escape from the dust, smoke and sights of desolation at Ground Zero. Not far from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the relief workers can rest, eat and seek counsel on the U.S. Navy ship Comfort.

In the dining hall, known as "the galley" in Navy parlance, firefighters, police officers, National Guardsmen and other relief workers mingle together seeking good food and good company. Chris, a Red Cross worker from the western U.S. state of Washington says, "We found that this was a very hospitable group of people and that the lunch was very good. We are kind of taking advantage of that and enjoy it very much. We really appreciate it."

The U.S. Navy's hospital ship USNS Comfort sits at New York's Pier 91 like a huge floating building. In fact, it is the seagoing equivalent of a 10 story building, with capacity for 1,000 beds. The ship was in its home port at Baltimore when the attack on the World Trade Center happened on September 11. At first, it was sent to New York to provide additional hospital emergency services.

But area hospitals were able to handle that need, so the mission was changed. and says the mission then changed. "Most of the medical staff was sent back to their primary duty stations and the rest of us, basically galley workers, the supply, administration and a few doctors and nurses were sent on up here to provide a place for the firemen to relax and get taken care of," explained Navy Petty Officer Third Class Rebecca Whitney.

The coordination for the entire relief effort is carried out by a team from New York's Emergency Management Office, which is operating from a building on the same pier. Ms. Whitney says all the relief workers authorized to go into the disaster zone have access to the services on the Navy ship. "Office of Emergency Management staff are coming just to eat because they are stationed on the pier right now," she said. "A lot of the police and fire department and the Office of Emergency Management, basically the people with the red tags on that can go downtown."

National Guard specialist Arnoldo Colon says the ship has provided him with a place to recharge both his spirits and his metabolism. "Here, the meals are good," he says. "I am a meal person [a person who likes food] and I sometimes, when our chaplain is not around, I come in and visit their chapel. Also, I used the medical facilities yesterday."

"Were you injured?" asks a reporter. "No," Mr. Colon replied, "I had a slight sore throat and a cold and they took care of me and today I am feeling 100 percent."

"I imagine down there with all that dust and all, you get a lot of respiratory problems?" Mr. Colon is asked.

"Yes," he replied. "We use the respirators as much as we can down there, but sometimes putting them on and taking them off you will get something in there, you know. That is probably why I got a little sick."

But maintaining the physical health of the workers is only one part of the task. The relief and recovery teams work long hours under great stress. They often see grim reminders of the human toll at the site, including not only pieces of clothing and personal belongings, but actual body parts. For some, the psychological strain is unbearable.

National Guard Chaplain Irvin Bryer heads a team that evaluates personnel on site and provides rest and counseling for those who need it. "We triage them and evaluate what is going on with them," Chaplain Bryer explained. "A couple of them, we just took upstairs to a comfort station and let them relax and fall to sleep watching television. The other three we sent down to the V.A. (Veterans Administration) hospital. One had a psychiatric evaluation, just to see what is going on. It is taxing on them."

Chaplain Bryer takes a break for lunch with other Guardsmen at the ship, but heads back down to the disaster site soon afterwards, ready to provide support for those who carry on the difficult and dangerous work.