29 January 2009

A Race against Death

On this day in 1955, the Queen Mary received word that two Greek seamen on the Panamanian freighter, S.S. Liberator, had been gravely injured and required urgent medical assistance. Dr. Joseph B. Maguire was the ship's principal medical officer at the time. In his words, "It was... a race against death... between them [they] had two concussions, one suspected skull fracture, a broken knee, two broken wrists, a broken shoulder-blade, a spinal injury and multiple bruises and lacerations. They had fallen through a hatch."

When Captain Donald Sorrell received the message, the Liberator was 323 miles away and the weather was bleak. Two other ships were closer, but neither was equipped to deal with serious injuries. With no other choice, Sorrell forged ahead at over 30 knots into what he knew would likely become a full-force gale. As she cut through ominous seas, the Mary continued to receive messages in broken English from the Liberator, none of them inspiring optimism. Below is an extract from the Queen Mary's log for that day:

Voyage #230 East
15:40 hours, received message from S.S. "Liberator" for medical assistance. [Two men fell down cargo hold, "mortally wounded"]
16:45 hours, in dead reckoning?? Lat. 48 degrees 33' N, Long 27 degrees 07' W % 077 degrees in order to rendezvous with S.S. "Liberator" 

The ship traveled throughout the night, rushing toward the freighter, which had no morphine and no stretchers. A bulletin from the captain was pinned to the notice boards, informing passengers a rescue was imminent -- though most of them already had sensed something unusual was afoot. As normal ship's activity gave way to excited commiserating, many gathered on the promenade deck to stand look-out. Meanwhile, the ocean grew more rambunctious. According to Maguire, "Captain Sorrell must have been very proud of his ship. I think we all were. There are about ten million rivets in her hull and most of them must have taken maximum strain in that drive into the heaving green wastes."

It was after one o'clock in the morning the following day when the ship arrived at the promised time, only to find a bigger challenge awaited: how to transfer two critically injured patients from the freighter to the giant ocean liner across a heaving, foaming sea. 

Read tomorrow's post for the the conclusion of the Mary's daring rescue at sea.


Queen Mary, Isolation Ward Exhibit 
The Sea My Surgery, by Dr. Joseph B. Maguire

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