Ex-hospital ship auctioned

The Baltimore Sun

The M/V Sanctuary, a former Navy hospital ship left to rot at the port of Baltimore, was auctioned off yesterday for $50,000.

A lawyer for the would-be owner refused to identify his client and couldn't say what will be done with the 522-foot-long, eight-story-high ship, promising more details if a judge agrees to accept the bid.

The ship was seized by federal marshals in March and auctioned by the U.S. District Court to repay debt racked up by the owner who wanted to see the vessel continue its long history of public service, this time as a floating drug rehab center.

Stephen J. Hammer, who couldn't be reached for comment yesterday, had fought a long battle with the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore to lease a pier for the ship.

Hammer eventually won a five-year lease for the ship's berth in North Locust Point in 2001 that expired in June 2006. But his debt continues to mount, with the tally for rent and fees reaching $284,567.93 as of yesterday.

Two bidders vied for the vessel during the auction yesterday on the steps of the federal courthouse downtown.

The first offer was for $1. The next was for $5. The first bidder then raised his offer to $50,000 - enough to swiftly end the contest and, perhaps, keep the court from rejecting the bid.

"We think it's a fair price," said Lawrence J. Kahn, the New York attorney representing a company called Potomac Navigation Inc., which was formed to buy the ship. Delaware records show the company was formed this month in that state and lists its registered agent as Yacht Registry Ltd., a company that assists firms seeking to incorporate in the state.

Kahn said the ship's next use depends on the vessel's condition. Engineers representing the would-be owner had only been able to look at the ship once before the auction and said there will be further inspections. The former hospital ship could be used for commercial purposes, sold or scrapped, he said.

The Sanctuary does appear to be deteriorating. It rests in the water off a weedy pier and has no gangplank. It broke free of its mooring lines earlier this year, and the Coast Guard told Hammer in a letter in March that the ship "presents an unacceptable risk to the port of Baltimore."

Officials never wanted the rehab center housed at the port in the first place because they said a working terminal was too dangerous for the ship's occupants.

If the judge accepts yesterday's bid, the ship will be towed away in the next 60 days.

That's a sad ending for Tom Callahan, a Vietnam veteran who came to the auction with his wife, Catherine, from Suffolk County, N.Y., to see what would become of the Sanctuary.

"We've been following the story of the Sanctuary for a long time," Catherine Callahan said. "Tom's life was saved aboard the Sanctuary when it was a hospital ship. We wanted to see it saved."

The Callahans wanted it to become a floating museum.

Kahn, the bidder's lawyer, said he would try and at least get the couple on board one last time.

From the port's perspective, the vessel is no longer serving any good purpose. It's using a pier along the harbor that could be rehabilitated and used for commercial purposes. North Locust Point is primarily used to handle paper products coming into the port.

"We're happy this vessel will soon be removed from its present location," said Richard Scher, a port spokesman. "Its pending removal will create different options for us to use that site for maritime business, as it was originally intended."

He said the port also is evaluating its options for collecting the remaining money it's owed for rent and fees.


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