Sunday, October 15, 2000

Bandaged, exhausted Cole
sailors arrive at Landstuhl

By Adam Ramirez
Kaiserslautern bureau

LANDSTUHL, Germany — Bandaged and exhausted from an 18-hour journey, 39 sailors injured aboard the USS Cole finally arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Saturday.

Sailors arrived in two waves — some walked through the emergency room doors; others were carried. All were greeted by a throng of doctors, nurses and support staff, who had been preparing to take care of them since the ship was attacked Thursday.

Seventeen sailors are dead after a terrorist bomb tore through the hull of the destroyer during a refueling stop in Yemen. The 39 injured were initially treated in Yemen and Djibouti.

The first Air Force C-9 medical evacuation plane from Ramstein Air Base picked up 28 sailors in Yemen. A second plane, picking up a more critically injured group of 11, landed in Ramstein about four hours after the first group arrived at the hospital.

Both flights were delayed by a heavy blanket of fog over Ramstein and the first plane was forced to land at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt.

Patients then rode for three hours on a bus to Landstuhl, arriving at 4:48 a.m.

"It’s been a long journey to get here for these young men and women; they are all pretty exhausted," said Army Col. Elder Granger, the hospital’s commander.

Sailors chose not to talk about the attack Saturday evening, according to Lt. Doug Gabos, a spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe.

Military officials later said they have been directed by the FBI to not allow injured sailors to talk publicly about the incident until federal agents have a chance to interview them.

The initial group was treated mostly for cuts and bruises, broken bones, concussions, smoke inhalation and eye injuries. One patient had a ruptured eardrum, Army Col. James Rundell said.

"More than half of all the patients are being treated for bone fractures," said Rundell, deputy commander of clinical services.

More than 50 doctors, specializing in nine different areas of medicine, were waiting as the sailors arrived.

The group from Djibouti landed at Ramstein around 9 a.m. and arrived at Landstuhl an hour later. The plane had waited out the weather in Sigonella, Sicily, after refueling in Cairo, Egypt.

Medical crews aboard the plane stabilized all the wounded and were surprised by the extent of some of their injuries.

"The injuries were more critical than I had anticipated," said Capt. Natalie Sykes, a flight nurse who helped shepherd the wounded from Djibouti. "We had reports of broken legs and jaws, but it was a lot more than I expected — smoke inhalation, blast injures, mental health issues."

Some of the 11 severely injured sailors — who suffered burns, blast wounds and fractured bones — were struggling to recover late Saturday.

"The wounds were just horrific," Gabos said. "Some of them are literally fighting for their lives."

While six sailors required surgery upon arrival, Granger said, "we are blessed that so few people were seriously hurt."

One thing on every sailor’s mind during the journey was calling home.

Some members of the group from Djibouti made calls on Navy cellular phones in Sicily and mobile phones from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

The first sailors to arrive were treated and then given phone cards in their hospital rooms, along with a hot meal.

Patients with minor injuries could be released from the hospital and returned to the United States as early as Sunday, Rundell said.

Rundell also said all the sailors should prepare to deal with trauma typically associated with living through such an attack.

Some of the symptoms Rundell said sailors should expect to experience are insomnia, memory loss, mood swings, uncontrolled anger and a strong temptation to drink alcohol.

"This is a hugely emotional event for them to go through. They should be prepared for this," he said.

Those with longer stays at the hospital may have their families brought to Landstuhl, Granger said.

Contributing to this report: staff writer Marni McEntee at Ramstein Air Base.