Videos have surfaced of an incident in Haiti aboard the Navy's hospital ship USNS Comfort that led to 19 people falling into the water and injuries to two sailors Monday evening.
The two clips, posted to a Navy-themed Instagram account, appear to show a boat full of people slowly lifted from the water by a Crane on the Comfort before tipping over while dangling in the air. Both videos show several people falling into the water below.
The videos not only shed light on what happened but also contradict prior Navy claims of rough seas, raising questions about the choice to use a crane to bring people aboard.
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On Tuesday, the Navy's 4th Fleet announced in a tweet that "nineteen personnel fell overboard during transfer from a small boat to the USNS Comfort." The service went on to add that "all personnel were safely recovered and returned to the USNS Comfort" with the help of a nearby Coast Guard ship and that "two injured Sailors were treated aboard the USNS Comfort and have made a full recovery.
The Navy’s spokesman, Cmdr. J. Myers Vasquez told Military.com that the service is “aware of the videos.”
“We have initiated an investigation that will examine the facts and evaluate our processes with the goal of improving operations at sea and ensuring the safety of the force,” Vasquez added.
Dr. Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University and a former merchant mariner who served aboard the Comfort during the Persian Gulf War, told Military.com that he has no doubt that the videos are of the hospital ship.
One major issue that immediately jumped out to Mercogliano was the choice to bring people aboard the Comfort using a crane.
"That crane is probably not rated to be hoisting an extra two tons of people on top of a boat load on board," Mercogliano told Military.com in a phone call Thursday.
"People were moving around that boat. … You had a dynamic load in the boat, the boat was shifting," he said. "It's just not what you would do."
One of the videos shows several people get up and move to one side of the boat as it's being craned up -- just before it tips 90 degrees.
Thinking back to his time in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Mercogliano noted that "when you do a boat operation like that, you would hoist boats on and off with minimum crew onboard -- maybe one or two people."
Instead, he explained, the ship has a port on its side, close to the waterline, that is typically used to bring people aboard. In fact, the Navy tweeted pictures of it being used to offload patients less than a week before the incident.
It is unclear why the ship's crew chose not to use this approach in this instance, but Mercogliano did note that making use of the door is "a long, laborious process."
"They would lower these platforms down and secure them to the side of the ship so that you're not docking right alongside the ship," he explained.
Navy officials told The Associated Press that heavy surf and swells led to the choice not to use the side door, but the videos show no evidence of rough seas.
Mercogliano said that he was told in conversations with people at Military Sealift Command -- the command that oversees the Comfort and its civilian operators -- that the ship was "trying to get out of the port as fast as they can and so they bypassed bringing [the 19 people] on board through the side port."
Military.com asked the Navy whether craning personnel aboard while they are in a boat is standard procedure and whether there was a specific reason the side port was not used in this incident. Vasquez did not directly answer those questions but did say that “as the investigation is ongoing, we can provide no further information at this time.”
At the time of the incident, the Comfort was at Wharf de Jeremie in Haiti as part of a semiannual operation to provide medical care to people in the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America.
The incident led to a pause in "ship-to-shore operations in Haiti for December 13th, until a safe alternative for personnel transfer has been identified," the Navy said in a tweet. A press release announced that the ship resumed its mission the next day.
"Medical providers will continue their efforts providing high-quality adult, pediatric, optometry and dental care to those in need in Haiti," the statement added.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
Related: US Navy Hospital Suspends Care in Haiti After 19 Overboard