Tuesday, October 17, 2000

With ships' arrival, Cole sailors
are finally getting some rest

By Scott Schonauer
Rota bureau

The remaining sailors aboard the USS Cole are finally getting some much-needed rest.

Since an explosion punched a 40-by-40-foot hole in the hull of the destroyer Thursday, many crewmembers have worked around the clock to keep their crippled warship afloat. With the arrival of two other Navy vessels in Yemen, they now have some help.

Sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and the frigate USS Hawes are in the area helping crewmembers pump out seeping water and repair electrical generators.

On Monday, divers continued to search around the ship for 10 missing sailors while other crewmembers tried to cut through the bent walls of the steel ship to extract at least two bodies caught in mangled compartments.

Navy officials said flooding continues to torment the crew, some of whom have had little time to mourn the loss of their shipmates. One team labored until the early morning hours Sunday after another bulkhead collapsed.

Although sailors aboard the ship and the 39 injured declined interviews, Navy officers close to the scene have passed on a few inspiring stories that illustrate the crew’s dedication and determination to save their ship.

For example, when the Navy offered the sailors to fly back to the United States and have replacements take over, they refused, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daren Pelkie said.

"In unison, they said they wanted to stay with their ship," he said.

When additional Navy ships arrived to help, USS Cole sailors did not immediately head for berthing to relax. They volunteered to work alongside their fellow sailors and do some of the routine work on the other ships.

In a story that baffled doctors, one sailor worked for two days fighting the flooding before he realized he had a broken hand.

Tom Brannon, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who lives in Gulf Breeze, Fla., said is amazed that the crew has been able to keep the ship from sinking with such a gaping hole in the port side and near the waterline.

He has an idea what many of the sailors might be going through. Brannon was aboard the USS Iowa when a fire in one of the ship’s gun turrets killed 47 crewmen on April 19, 1989. For hours, he and others helped drag dead and wounded sailors from smoldering ship compartments.

"There’s an element that will be in their memories for a very long time," he said by telephone. "I dreamed about it for two weeks."

They also are probably emotionally and physically drained, he said. The crew is probably going through several phases, from the adrenaline-pumping moment after the explosion to the despair of realizing that they have lost their friends and shipmates.

"There will be a moment for them, probably right now, when they’ll sit down and all of the sudden the fatigue will set in," he said. "They will be real tired. You are utterly fatigued after an ordeal like that."

While they might get a little time to rest, many of the nearly 300 sailors will have to continue to work.

The Navy has not determined what it will do with the Cole, whether to repair it so it can cruise out of the port and head to another pier for additional repairs, or bring in a ship that could tow it.

As for the sailors wounded in the explosion and transported to the ship’s homeport of Norfolk, Va., many were expected to be released in the next few days, Navy officials said.

In Germany, the two sailors most badly injured in the attack will remain at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for at least another week.

Doctors there said four other sailors still receiving treatment likely will return to the United States on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Several had asked if they could be home in Norfolk, Va., in time for Wednesday’s memorial service for their 17 shipmates who died in the blast.

None of the six sailors — four men and two women, all in their 20s — is in a life-threatening condition, but the most seriously injured has fractures of all four limbs and internal injuries.

"This individual has been through a lot of surgery. He is very stable," Col. James Rundell said. "This sailor had one last operation Monday."

A female sailor with burns to 14 percent of her body — mostly her face and hands — is doing better, and doctors plan soon to remove a respirator helping her breathe, Rundell said.

Both remained in an intensive care unit and were sedated, he said. They would remain at Landstuhl for "a week or two."

Staff writer Adam Ramirez contributed to this report.