GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The judge in the 9/11 case abruptly canceled a pretrial hearing because he required emergency surgery for a detaching retina and then, in an illustration of how remote this island base can be, waited 16 hours to be flown to Miami for treatment.
Marine Col. Keith Parrella’s sudden recess late Tuesday caused another pretrial delay in efforts to try the five men accused of plotting al-Qaida’s September 11, 2001 attacks that killed 2,976 people in New York, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. The men were first charged in May 2012. The next hearings are scheduled for late March.
Parrella announced the health emergency in a rushed Tuesday-evening closed conference with lawyers and prosecutors, indicating he expected to be airlifted from the base within hours. But an aircraft shortage in the military medical system forced a delay until a noon departure on Wednesday—after Parrella’s wife, Jennifer, took to social media from their home in North Carolina.
“I’m reaching to anybody I can to get him on a plane. He just needs to be in the United States and be in surgery,” Jennifer Parrella told McClatchy Wednesday morning. “Now his eye is starting to darken, the fear is he’s going to lose his sight.”
Five hours later, after the judge was evacuated, she said she was headed to join her husband at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, where he was to undergo emergency surgery.
The Marine colonel was evacuated by air ambulance from Guantánamo by International SOS, a medevac firm that provides services to the Department of Defense, Defense Health Agency spokesman Kevin Dwyer said by email from Virginia on Wednesday. “At no time did International SOS refuse to evacuate the patient.”
Dwyer blamed “a lack of available aircraft” for what he called a brief delay. “This situation has been rectified. The Department will work to ensure future extraction delays are avoided.”
Dwyer did not immediately respond to a question of how much the evacuation cost.
Parrella, who is in his mid-40s, got the death-penalty case in August and has held just three hearings. He replaced now-retired Army Col. James L. Pohl, who presided on the pretrial hearings from arraignment in May 2012.
It is uncertain how long Parrella is to serve on the case. The 24-year career Marine officer, who has served as a military judge for more than two years, was selected to assume the post of commander of Marine forces responsible for embassy security worldwide in the summer, a position that’s consider a plum assignment.
Parrella had planned to hear closed-court testimony from a former CIA interpreter on Wednesday, handle other September 11 trial business and return with war court personnel to Washington on Saturday. In a further illustration of the challenges and costs of flights to and from Guantánamo., war court spokesman Ron Flesvig said the lawyers, court reporters, translators and other personnel on base for the canceled hearing were stranded here until Saturday because the Office of Military Commissions could not line up an earlier flight.