The hospital ship Comfort (T-AH 20) sails off the coast of Jérémie, Haiti, Dec. 11, 2022. A craning mishap sent 19 passengers plummeting into the sea the following day, according to US 4th Fleet officials. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ethan J. Soto.
It was a moment of sheer terror as a US Navy small boat being craned aboard the hospital ship Comfort off Haiti suddenly pitched in midair, spilling 19 passengers into the sea.
The incident occurred Monday, Dec. 12, at 7:17 p.m. local time near Wharf de Jérémie, a pier where Haitians had gathered to receive medical, dental, and optometric care from Comfort’s health providers dragooned from the military services, plus civilian volunteers.
Luckily, personnel from the nearby US Coast Guard cutter Harold Miller rushed to the aid of the overboard swimmers. By 10:30 p.m., they’d yanked all 12 civilian and seven military members from the sea and returned them to the Comfort.
Officials told Coffee or Die Magazine that two sailors sustained minor injuries and were treated on board the vessel, but they’re expected to make a full recovery and resume their duties.
“Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, and the mission will continue,” said US 4th Fleet spokesperson Lewis Preddy.
US Coast Guard cutter Harold Miller was commissioned at Sector Field Office Galveston, Texas, on July 15, 2020. The Sentinel-class cutter is named in honor of Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Harold Miller, who received a Silver Star for combat heroism at Tulagi Island during World War II. US Coast Guard photo.
Comfort anchored off Jérémie on Sunday, the fifth and final stop on its “Continuing Promise” goodwill cruise. Over the past 15 years, Continuing Promise caregivers have treated more than 582,000 patients and conducted more than 7,000 surgical procedures across the Caribbean, Central, and South America.
The problem is that a Mercy-class hospital ship displaces 69,360 tons and its draft dips 33 feet, far too big and deep for Jérémie’s snug harbor. That meant Comfort’s medical team would need to rely on small boats to ferry them back and forth from the ship anchored offshore.
As Comfort’s medical providers cared for Haitians on the wharf on Monday, the sea state got angrier. By sunset, waves were cresting at 4 feet and the swell was getting heavier.
Preddy told Coffee or Die that typically Comfort’s crew would rely on local water taxis for transportation, but the rising waves “made that too dangerous.”
Deckhands also tried the ACOM — an accommodation ladder composed of folding flights of stairs that run down the hull to the water — but the waves soon made that too tricky to use.
Sailors and volunteers from the hospital ship Comfort erect a medical site in Jérémie, Haiti, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juel Foster.
So Comfort’s crew decided to lift the boat directly onto the vessel.
It remains unclear what triggered the tumble of its passengers into Caribbean Sea, Preddy said.
But lifting boats into shipboard stowage isn’t an easy exercise, even in the calmest of seas during daytime hours.
Worn, damaged, or corroded slings, rings, bails, and fittings can fail under the strain. A hoisting team might botch the weight of the boat being hauled aboard, or the load might be improperly distributed throughout the craft, making it pitch as it goes up or comes down.
A sailor or civilian mariner on deck also might fail to properly handle the side guys, lines used to steady a rocking small boat as it’s lifted onto the vessel.
Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Bryce Batiancela, from the "Chargers" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 Detachment 3, attached to hospital ship Comfort, looks at the coastline during flight operations off the coast of Haiti, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juel Foster.
Fourth Fleet ordered a “safety standdown” for Tuesday, pausing all sea ship-to-shore movements so Comfort's crew can test its equipment and refresh training.
But spokesperson Preddy said the break should wrap up by Wednesday morning, and medical operations will quickly resume.
Comfort is slated to continue providing health care services in Jérémie until Thursday.
It then will steam north to its homeport of Norfolk, returning the crew, military health providers, and civilian volunteers to Virginia before Christmas.
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Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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