BALTIMORE, AUG. 10 -- The USNS Comfort, the 1,000-bed Naval hospital ship based here, and its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, were being readied today for deployment to the Mideast. The Comfort will sail Saturday on the first leg of its voyage, the Navy said tonight.
The preparations, the first for either ship in a potential war setting, came as U.S. troops continued to pour into Saudi Arabia to guard against an invasion by Iraq.
The Comfort is scheduled to leave Baltimore at 6 p.m. Saturday for Norfolk, where it will load supplies before being deployed to the Mideast, a Navy source said tonight. Neither Navy nor Defense Department officials, citing security precautuions, would specify where the Comfort and the Mercy, based in Long Beach, Calif., will be positioned in the Mideast.
Loading activity at the Comfort's dock in Baltimore intensified today as hastily called crew members arrived, supplies were loaded and technicians checked equipment.
About 1,160 medical and support personnel, most from Bethesda Naval Hospital, were taking preliminary steps to join the ship, including assembling personal gear and getting inoculations updated, according to the hospital's deputy public affairs officer, William Clyde.
Clyde said that today was the last day of normal functioning at the hospital and that elective surgery will be suspended for the immediate future and other surgery curtailed.
Between them, the Comfort and the Mercy have 2,000 beds and 24 operating rooms, putting them among the largest hospitals in the United States. In addition, each can carry 3,000 units of frozen blood and has a decontamination unit for patients who have been subjected to chemical or radioactive exposure. Iraq, known to have poison gas, has threatened to use it if it is attacked.
At dockside here, two civilian crew members, Felix Alers and Julio Morales, both of Orlando, Fla., arrived shortly after noon in a taxi from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and clambered aboard the Comfort. Each carried several suitcases.
"They didn't tell us where we're going," said Morales, an oiler. "They just ordered us to come here . . . . We got a half-hour's notice."
"We don't know what's going on," said Alers, a junior engineer. "I don't feel much like going, I'll tell you that."
"I've got a wife and kid back home," said Morales.
The Comfort, an 894-foot converted supertanker, is maintained by a skeleton crew of about a dozen civilians and 40 Navy medical technicians when it is inactive in port. When the ship activated, crew and staff are increased to a maximum of 1,200 and additional supplies are brought aboard, a process that takes about five days, officials said.
The Comfort and the Mercy were commissisoned in the mid-1980s and have not previously been assigned a combat support role. The Mercy went to the Philippines in 1987 on a seven-port humantarian mission, providing care to more than 65,000 patients, according to Mercy spokesman Bob Borden.
Staff Writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.