USNS Comfort

The USNS Comfort, a mercy-class hospital ship that has sailed all over the world to assist in medical relief from such news-grabbing events such as Operation Desert Storm, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, rests at her current home in Baltimore harbor. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / February 15, 2012)

It was Happy Hour at the Poncabird Pub on Wednesday, and the South Baltimore tavern was as busy and bustling as usual, but as late-afternoon sunlight streaked through a side window, the expressions it caught on the faces at one table were decidedly grim.

"This [stinks]," said Dane Sobus, a regular customer who has spent many evenings drinking with crew members and workers from the USNS Comfort, the hospital ship the Navy announced this week will be moving to Norfolk, Va., after a quarter-century in the port of Baltimore.

"Those people aren't just customers to us. They're friends," added Lisa Lawton, a waitress who is also the daytime manager. "It's a huge loss."

The Comfort, a former oil tanker converted to its current use in 1987, was originally meant to provide emergency medical and surgical care for U.S. troops in combat, but it eventually proved more useful for humanitarian relief missions. It traveled to New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and to Haiti after the earthquake that hit the island in 2010.

When the towering ship is relocated to Norfolk sometime next March, the vessel will take the jobs of 18 civilians and 59 naval personnel along with it, not to mention the prestige of its presence in the area and the business it meant for the contractors and service workers who bring in fuel, care for the boilers, operate the phone lines, handle the sewage and provide the electricity and food the ship requires when it's in port.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday that he'll work with the state's congressional delegation, in particular Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, to try to persuade the Navy to keep the ship in Baltimore, but he conceded that it will be a daunting challenge.

"The hard economics of the matter is that the ship was docked at a private berth and paying $2 million when they could pay nothing by going to available naval facilities in Norfolk, so it's a tough economic argument to make," he said. "We're continuing to push back and see what we can do."

The ship generates nearly $11 million for the local economy each year, said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. About $7.3 million is attributable to salaries, $3 million to local purchases and $730,000 to taxes, he said, adding that an independent consultant had come up with the figurers.

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who was instrumental in bringing the ship to Baltimore in the 1980s and had fought for months to prevent it from moving away, had said Tuesday that the ship's economic impact was between $35 million and $40 million per year. She agreed that the Port Administration's estimate was probably closer.

The Navy was offering no official comment as of Wednesday afternoon, and reporters were not invited aboard the ship, but Bentley arrived on the dock late in the day to do a stand-up interview for local television, and she made it clear that, to her, the loss was more than an economic one.

"We love [the ship]. We've treated it nice. Everybody loves it. We hope we can still keep it," she said.

The ship lay quietly in the harbor as sea gulls circled overhead on a calm, sunny day. But at least one worker on site had emotions not unlike Bentley's. "Save our baby for us," Carl Patrick, a security guard, said to the former congresswoman as she came in.

Patrick works for Keystone Ship Berthing Inc., the Baltimore company that directs all contracting services for the Comfort. He said he's one of four guards the company employs at Pier 11, the Comfort's berthing site.

"At least two of us will probably go to another port," he told Bentley, 89. "I might be one of them. If not, I'm going to do what you didn't do — retire."

Steve Cartwright, Keystone's Maryland representative and the pier manager, arrived later to check on a business matter. His father, Fred Cartwright, founded the firm, which began overseeing all independent contracting for the ship, from phone service to sewage and power, in 1987. Steve has been on board since 1992.

The company works with seven ships in Baltimore, Steve Cartwright said, but because the Comfort is an active vessel and hosts a hospital, it means considerably more business for the company than any of the others.

It was still too soon for him to put a dollar value on the losses, he said, but if and when the ship moves, it would mean up to a 40 percent reduction in his own pay. More than that, he said he has come to befriend the people who come from as far away as Virginia to work on the ship.

"Over the years, the Comfort has become a landmark," he said, his eyes distant. "'The word 'disappointing' doesn't even begin to cover this."

Rick Haynes, a former executive director of the Navy's Military Seacraft Command, which commands the ship, says that while it's a loss to the area, he understands the Navy's thinking.