The order to close a helicopter landing zone that relief workers and crew members of the USNS Comfort planned to use Friday to fly earthquake victims to the floating hospital came from the top general in charge of American relief operations in Haiti, a spokesman for the general said.
But Lt. Gen. Ken Keen gave the order at the request of United Nations officials who wanted to use the site - on the presidential palace grounds - to hand out relief supplies, the spokesman said. And the order specifically excluded "life and limb flights," he said.
"Apparently the word didn't filter down" that medical flights were approved, said Capt. John Kirby, a Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman who said he has been communicating with Keen about the issue. "This is really an honest case of miscommunication."
The miscommunication stranded the Comfort's triage team, including one of the Baltimore-based ship's senior trauma surgeons, on the lawn of the presidential palace for more than a day, as dozens of patients ready for transport waited at the nearby public hospital. The team, which had ferried the bulk of the Comfort's patient load the day before, never sent any Friday, and the ship received just over half the patients it expected that day.
Kirby said word of the United Nations request probably never filtered to the Comfort because it was operating on its own.
"The Comfort flights that morning were uncoordinated," Kirby said. "Nobody at the palace knew what was coming in."
No United Nations mission was apparent at the Haitian national palace during the hours the Navy triage team was there. Most of the time, only the Haitian National Police - and their family members, staying in tents - were on the palace grounds, often inquiring why the helicopters weren't coming.
The head of the National Police, who were guarding the palace, told the group from the Comfort repeatedly that they had permission to land helicopters there. Once he claimed to have spoken to Haitian President Rene Preval, and said Preval had given the Americans permission to land helicopters at the palace.
Capt. Richard Sharpe, the surgeon who headed the Navy team, declined to discuss the issue Sunday, saying he preferred to focus on the Comfort's continuing humanitarian mission.