BALTIMORE, SEPT. 6 -- The 13,574-ton hulk sits rusting and faded at a pier in south Baltimore.

But if its new owners have their way, the World War II-vintage USS Sanctuary will be reincarnated in two years as a modernized hospital ship ready for medical missions to Africa, Asia and South America.

The cost: $5 million to $10 million, according to Robert L. Mead, executive director of Life International, a nonprofit organization in Silver Spring that obtained the ship from the Navy early this year.

"It's a toy without batteries right now," said Mead, " . . . but when we're done, it'll be a floating city."

Similar to but unrelated to the privately operated American hospital ship SS Hope that sailed the world from 1958 to 1974, the Sanctuary will offer health care for patients and instruction for doctors and paramedics in major Third World ports, Mead said.

The first stop, he said, probably will be Lagos, Nigeria.

Unlike the Hope, which generally made brief calls, Mead said, the Sanctuary will stay 18 to 24 months at each port, providing "long-term, significant care."

Life International recently towed the Sanctuary to Baltimore for refitting. It had been in mothballs in Newport News since 1977. The organization invited reporters and photographers aboard this week as part of a long-range fund-raising campaign.

Operating with an initial $300,000 grant from the non-denominational Christian Service Corps, Life International said it will rely on financial contributions, donated goods and volunteer work.

When fully operational in two years, Mead said, the Sanctuary will have an all-volunteer crew of 35 to 40 sailors and 150 medical personnel, most of them volunteers. Volunteers will receive $150 a month, plus room and board.

Built as a cargo carrier in 1944, the 520-foot vessel was redesigned as a military hospital ship. It helped take U.S. prisoners of war out of Japan in 1945, served in Indochinese waters for five years during the Vietnam War, then was refitted again as a combination family hospital and commissary for U.S. military dependents in Greece.

This last arrangement fell through when Greece withdrew from NATO in the mid-1970s. And the Sanctuary was retired to Newport News.

Life International was formed in 1973 for the single purpose of "getting Navy Reserve ships {out of mothballs} and into medical missions," said Life International's founder and president, Robert N. Meyers.

He spent much of the last 15 years, he said, lobbying Congress for legislation to turn the Sanctuary over to his organization. He succeeded late last year, paying the government a token $15.

Meyers said the Navy retains the right to reclaim the ship in an emergency but he does not expect the military to exercise that option during the current Mideast crisis.

The vessel has many medical facilities in place -- operating rooms, dental clinics, laboratories, a pharmacy, a helicopter pad, an intensive care ward -- but must be fitted with modern equipment and supplies. The 9,000-horsepower oil-fired engines also must be checked and cleaned and extensive electrical work done.

Mead and Meyers said they already are recruiting volunteer workers, including some from local Job Corps centers, for painting, welding, carpentry, plumbing and other work. Navy reserve divers have agreed to survey the Sanctuary's hull, Mead said.