On-shore problems trouble the USNS Comfort
The goal Friday was to move 120 injured earthquake victims to the U.S. Navy’s modern, sterile medical facility floating off the coast. To coordinate the mission, the USNS Comfort sent a trauma surgeon with four combat tours, as well as a security team to establish a landing zone outside Haiti’s ruined presidential palace and begin ferrying patients by helicopter.
But Friday did not turn out as a day of humanitarian medicine for the Comfort’s shore-side Rapid Assessment Team — it only brought frustration and wasted time. By day’s end, stymied by logistical problems at every turn, the team had yet to send a patient to the ship. And the impact was palpable: The Comfort, which treated 102 patients Thursday, treated only 69 Friday.
Team leader Capt. Richard Sharpe bitterly summed up the long, maddening wait: “Here we are out at the presidential palace. People die, captain takes nap.”
The team had touched down by helicopter at 7:30 a.m. on the same palace lawn where 60 or more patients were flown to the Comfort on Thursday. But Sharpe had taken only a few steps away from the helicopter’s spinning rotor when a U.S. Army officer told him that the landing zone was closed until 11 a.m. The United Nations was planning to distribute food and other aid on the grounds, and didn’t want the American military around, the Army officer said.
Later, after hours of wasted time, the story changed. An Army officer said the landing area was closed out of concern that Haitians -- including thousands in a nearby tent city -- might think the Americans were taking over.
So the Navy team kept waiting on the palace lawn — under a mango tree with roosters and peacocks strutting around them — for a helicopter that never came.
Photo from the Los Angeles Times