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20 years after the attack on the USS Cole, memories of heroism and loss

The MV Blue Marlin transporting the USS Cole, October 31, 2000. (U.S. Navy/Released)
October 12, 2020

It was typical steamy morning in Yemen, 20 years ago when the USS Cole eased past At-Tawahi point and the container port.

As the warship entered the harbor, machinery repairman Rick Harrison spotted a ship lying over on its side and he didn’t like how it made him feel.

“I was with my friend Marc Nieto on the fantail and I asked Marc: ‘You have this feeling something is going to happen?’”

The Norfolk-based destroyer was headed for what was supposed to be a brief stop for refueling on the way to the Persian Gulf.

About two hours after its captain, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, won his argument with the Yemeni pilot and made sure Cole’s bow was pointed out to sea — Lippold wanted to be sure the ship could get out of port fast if necessary — a dinghy that had been hugging close to a barge coming to collect trash, suddenly broke away, heading fast and hard toward the destroyer.

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It was about 11:10 a.m. on Oct. 20, 2000.

The dinghy slowed, the two men on board smiled and gestured in what seemed to be a friendly way as they steered close to the destroyer’s port side, headed toward the stern.

Seconds later, it exploded.

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The blast

The blast tore a 32-by-36-foot hole in the ship’s side. It lifted the 505-foot-long destroyer out of the water, pushed the deck of the crew and chief’s galley up to the ceiling. Water roared into the main engine room, auxiliary machine room and a store room.

Seventeen sailors died. Thirty-nine were seriously injured. The more than 200 who survived spent days trying to find the missing, care for those who needed it, and battle desperately to keep the gravely wounded ship, listing at 20 degrees, afloat. They worked in 100-plus degree heat, with the sickening smell of blood, rotting food and fear filling the air.

“I got lucky, my back was to the blast,” said Robert McTureous, then a gas turbine systems technician 2nd class, who was busy testing the fuel the destroyer was taking on.

“Three of us were in the oil lab, in the blast zone. Two of us got out,” he said.

Gas Turbine System Technician-Mechanical 1st Class Margaret Lopez was facing the other way, and suffered burns over 20% of her body. She waded through waist-deep water to escape — and then swam back into the ship, searching for Ensign Andrew Triplett, who had also been in the lab.

He didn’t make it.

Andrew Triplett, a Mississippian who had started his career as an enlisted man and was commissioned an officer three years earlier, was the last person Greg McDearmon, a lieutenant in the deck department, saw.

“He was a mentor to all us younger officers,” McDearmon said. “He was helping me qualify as an engineering officer of the watch …

“The last thing he said was ‘I’ll see you in the wardroom, later.’ ”

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Everything went dark

“I was walking in the midships passage, it lifted me off my feet and pushed me up against the overhead,” Harrison recalled.

Everything went dark. Thick black smoke billowed through the ship. Then the first, bloodied sailors emerged from the smoke.

“I thought it’s the fuel tank, I thought maybe a missile. I wondered if another missile was coming,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s training as a fire marshal kicked in — unaware that he himself had fractures in his spine or that his knees had suffered what would turn out to be permanent, disabling injury, he led his crew-mates to the damage control center for first aid.

Then, he went in search of his firefighting gear.

“The doctor told me later I was in shock,” he said.

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Trapped

The blast threw Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney out of his seat in the chief’s galley. It sent a shipmate flying over his head, Smoke filled the air. Feeling his way along a wall, he found the galley exit but it was blocked. Trapped, knowing it wouldn’t be long before he and his shipmates in the galley suffocated, he hammered on the bulkhead, hoping to attract attention.

He did. Fellow sailors cut an hole, allowing him and his some shipmates to escape.

“The deck came up and was pushed all the way into the bulkhead. … There were people that were crushed up against this bulkhead,” he later told the Navy’s All Hands magazine.

“There were people that were still trapped in the machinery, caught in various different things,” he continued. He saw two shipmates lying in the passage way.

“One, I think was already deceased and the second was struggling for breath and later did not make it.”

Senior Chief Storekeeper Joe Pelly made his way through dark, thick smoke, sparking cables and leaking fuel oil to a shipmate pinned under a mangled grill. Wedging himself between live wires and twisted metal to reach her, he organized a team to use a “jaws of life” device to get the grill off the injured sailor.

Boatswains’ Mate Eric Kafka, suffering torn leg ligaments and lung damage, headed into one of the flooding compartments to lead six shipmates to safety.

“It was still arcing and sparking, but he went in anyway,” said James Parlier, the master chief hospital corpsman who also served as the Cole’s command master chief.

Then he organized 50 sailors to manhandle the gangway, which normally required a crane to be moved, to get the most seriously injured off the ship

“We got the injured off in an hour and 39 minutes,” Parlier said.

“I was helping the corpsman triage ….

“But I put five of shipmates in body bags.”

It would take nine days to recover all the of dead.

“I kept thinking about my friends, Ken Clodfelter, Marc Nieto, Pat Roy, wondering if they were ok,” Harrison recalls.

None of them made it.

“I carried some of my best friends’ bodies out of the ship. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

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Saving the ship

The damage was unimaginable. It would take more than a year at the Mississippi shipyard that built the Cole in 1996 before the ship could return to service.

Cracks in the hull went all the way down to the keel — the ship was at risk of breaking in two. The blast sliced through much of the electrical, communications and mechanical systems.

“We had to use a cell phone a colonel from the embassy gave us,” Parlier said. “The battle group was 1,000 miles away.”

Two days after the attack, the seal on the ship’s main shaft broke and water started pouring in.

Sailors waded into the oily water, pushing mattresses and other soft material around the broken shaft, to keep the water out. But the Cole’s pumps weren’t able to get the water all the way from the very bottom of the hull up to the deck and out — and the water was deep enough to put the ship at risk of foundering.

“For a while, we weren’t sure if we’d have to leave, if the Cole wasn’t going to sink to the bottom,” McDearmon recalled.

There’s wasn’t an obvious answer — until someone thought to try cutting a hole in the hull, to make it easier to get the water out.

And Hull Maintenance Technician First Class Chris Regal volunteered to splash over and fire up a welding torch, despite the risk of doing so in that oil-saturated water, to cut the hole.

“We had to operate outside the manual for a lot of what we did,” McDearmon said.

“My teammate Martin Songer and me, we’d go compartment by compartment. Before we’d put on our (self-contained breathing apparatus), we’d take some deep breaths. We’d throw up, put it on and go in. … There was a job to do and we did it,” Harrison said.

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Tense days

The Cole came into Aden under “threat condition Bravo,” which was the second lowest on a scale of four rankings of risk.

It meant guards were posted, but under the rules of engagement, they were not to fire upon civilian vessels unless fired on first. Crew members later said they didn’t know what they could have done to prevent the attack.

And those rules held, even after the explosion, sailors reported. One told The Washington Post that when he pointed the M-60 machine gun on the Cole’s fantail at an approaching boat to warn it off, a chief petty officer ordered him to turn the gun away.

“I remember listening to the chanting on loudspeakers coming from the city, the people lining up on the pier,” Harrison said. The embassy arranged for food from a nearby hotel, but many of the sailors didn’t trust it. Instead, they managed on snacks from the ship’s stores, until other Navy vessels arrived.

It was very tense. Nobody knew if another attack was coming.

A review led by the Army’s former vice chief of staff and the retired admiral who had been commander-in-chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command found security gaps across military operations in the region. A Navy investigation noted that although some procedures in the Cole’s security plan weren’t followed, they would not have been enough to prevent the attack.

The extensive FBI investigation ultimately determined that members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network planned and carried out the bombing. By 2008, all the defendants convicted in the attack had escaped from prison or been freed by Yemeni officials.

A Saudi Arabian citizen named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured by the CIA in 2002, was charged with responsibility for the bombing in 2008. He is still awaiting trial.

Jamal al-Badawi, an al-Qaeda operative accused by the United States of helping plot the attack, was killed in January by a U.S. airstrike in Yemen.

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The legacy

Robert McTureous still bears scars; loud noises still make him jump — “fireworks scare the heck out of me,” he says. Harrison’s injuries prompted chronic arthritis; damage to his lungs has sent him to the hospital several times.

“The nightmares will never go away. They’re with you forever,” Harrison said.

But that’s not the big thing he hopes people will remember.

“Some people had a hard time going back into the skin of the ship,” he said. “but everybody pulled together…there’s flooding, people are missing, no power but you wouldn’t believe how people pulled together like that.”

McDearmon said he wants to be sure Americans don’t think of the Cole and its crew as victims.

“We were in combat; it wasn’t a crime, it was an act of war,” he said.

“All the training, that’s what did it … it was tough, yeah. Going in to places where there was no power, where it was flooded, with emergency lighting or flashlights. In some parts of the ship, the smell,” McDearmon said.

“But they did it.”

And, at the end of those three weeks, “When we left that port, the ship was upright. We cleaned it, all the soot. We changed out the colors, after the last of our deceased shipmates left, New colors, not any that had been stained and torn in the attack,” he said.

They’d kept the old, tattered flag up, and signed a floodlight on it overnight, to send one message — that they were still there. still working to say their ship.

And they hoisted the new one to send a different message.

“We wanted everyone to see that this is a warship and we’re going to depart here in as strong a posture as we can.”

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© 2020 The Virginian-Pilot