USNS Grasp in Haiti
By Laura M. Seal, MSC Public Affairs
As the ground beneath Port-au-Prince, Haiti, shook violently, Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Grasp was en route to Belize City, Belize, where the ship was scheduled to begin a U.S. Southern Command international-outreach and maritime-security mission.
"We heard about the earthquake the morning of the 13th," said Grasp's civil service master Capt. Jose Delfaus. "Based on everything we heard, we expected that the devastation was so great that we would get called to Haiti to assist."
Delfaus was right. Grasp pulled into port in Belize City the morning of Jan. 13, and the ship's crew and embarked Army divers began their regularly scheduled activities. At 3 p.m., Jan. 14, they received the anticipated orders to divert to Haiti, and by 6 p.m., Grasp was underway for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the ship stopped to refuel and load food and other humanitarian relief supplies. Grasp also embarked a team of specialized personnel, including Navy Capt. Dale Fleck, commodore, Explosive Ordnance Unit Group Two, which is dedicated to pier-assessment operations; some underwater construction-team divers; and a civilian structural engineer from Naval Facilities Command.
The personnel joined Grasp's 27 civil service mariners, four sailors, one engineering cadet and 17 members of the Army's 544th Engineer Dive Team who were already aboard.
Grasp arrived off the coast of Port-au-Prince Jan. 18, and dropped anchor just about 300 yards from the pier where the ship's embarked 544th Dive Team divers immediately began conducting surveys and assessments necessary to repair the port.
Grasp and its embarked divers are among several assets and personnel supporting Operation Unified Response activities in Haiti. Leading these operations was Navy Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, commander, Task Force 42. CTF 42 oversaw all port activities and coordination. Other dive units involved are the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, Mobile Diving Salvage Unit Two and Underwater Construction Teams One and Two.
Since Grasp's arrival, the Army and Navy divers have been working tirelessly to complete a wide range of tasks - from assessing infrastructure damage and repairing port facilities to mapping waterways in the harbor and identifying obstructions to navigation.
Grasp and its crew have provided invaluable support to the divers - housing and feeding many of them and using the ship's workboat to transport divers to their dive sites.
"Our manifest has been dynamic," said Delfaus. "I've been using the term 'reverse liberty.' The divers like to come out to the ship for a good meal, a shower and some rest before heading back to their work, which is very exhausting." Divers not staying aboard the ships are living in camps ashore.
When asked by the divers to construct a tool that they designed specifically to assist with their operations in Haiti, the engineering department set straight to the task. Grasp's engine cadet Devin Tetzlaff created the tool from scratch. Tetzlaff, a student at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, is serving aboard Grasp for about two months as part of his schooling.
The ship was also able to deliver donated goods from Project Handclasp and other organizations to hospital ship USNS Comfort. These items had been aboard Grasp to be distributed as part of its international outreach mission.
"We had some brown teddy bears aboard, and we gave them to the hospital ship Comfort," said Delfaus. "A couple of days later, we saw on the news that a little child aboard Comfort was holding one of the teddy bears, and we knew it was one of ours."
As of mid-February, Grasp's future plans are uncertain and its stay in Port-au-Prince indefinite.
"My crew always volunteers to do even more than our primary mission to maintain the ship and support the divers," said Delfaus. "Right now we are here working hard and awaiting whatever future taskings we may receive."
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Lussier contributed to this story.