U.S.S Cole The crews story

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As a Warship Is Crippled, a Moment Is Forever Frozen Aboard the Cole, Andrew Nemeth waited for chow. Jesse Neal napped. Raymond Mooney monitored the refueling operation. Then, Mooney says, 'We got cracked in half.'

By STEPHEN BRAUN, Times Staff Writer

They would all remember where they were at 11:18 that morning. Engineman Andrew Nemeth was in the galley, hungry after a troubling stint on watch on the bridge of the U.S. destroyer Cole. Five hours earlier, he and a group of navigators had waited as the warship sat just outside the port of Aden, Yemen--stalled by a local harbor pilot who was late in arriving to help guide the Cole in. When the pilot finally boarded at 7:30, all smiles but no explanation after an hour's delay, the sailors eyed each other warily.

"It didn't feel right," Nemeth remembered later. But by 11:18, his uneasiness had faded. At the head of the mess line, he picked up a blue plastic tray bearing the Cole's crest insignia and waited to get a plate of chicken fajitas. The scene on the bridge also had irked Jesse Neal, another engineman on watch. But by 11:18, Neal too had only lunch on his mind. After a quick nap in his rack--one of the triple-decker bunks crammed into sleeping quarters at the aft of the ship--he was clambering down, halfway to the deck.

Out on the refueling platform, a bored-looking Yemeni soldier stood sentry. Three armed Navy rovers patrolled on deck, and fuel technicians watched for leaks. The rest of the crew of 335 was scattered throughout the ship, primed for the lunch call. As Seaman Raymond Mooney kept watch on an overflow fuel vent, he noticed a small white fishing boat approaching from "out of nowhere." He reckoned it was another of the harbor craft that serviced the Cole that morning, hauling away sacks of trash and siphoning off sewage.

"These guys are moving pretty fast," Mooney thought--but not quite fast enough to warrant radioing a warning to the bridge. As the boat neared the Cole's port side, Mooney saw two men standing at the helm. They waved, and Mooney waved back as the men throttled to a stop, parallel to the Cole's slate-gray hull. Then, the white boat was gone, vanished inside a fireball that boiled up from the waterline.

The Cole quaked. Explosives hidden in the small craft had blown outward at 5.6 miles per second. A 40-foot-wide crevice opened in the warship's armored hull. Bulkheads imploded. Metal slammed into metal, driving two of the Cole's lower decks upward. Machinery burst apart. Fuel lines ruptured, spewing streams of flammable yellow propellant. The ship shuddered to port as a wall of seawater flooded in. Sailors were flung about, weightless, thrown against collapsing walls, pinned by flying steel. Nearly a fifth of the crew was felled. Within minutes, 15 men and two women of the Cole were dead. Without power, cut off from their officers, the survivors rushed to aid their own. Then they turned to the ship itself, struggling against rising seawater and repeated power and equipment failures to keep the Cole from sinking. A month has passed since the Oct. 12 bombing. Accounts of the Cole's day of crisis have remained sketchy as returning sailors scattered across the country and the Navy has kept their identities secret. This narrative is an attempt to more fully portray the crew's struggle through the eyes of three who made it back and others also on board that day. They endured, a perseverance grounded in months of training and one long day of will. When it was over, all they had to show were their own wounds and the broken ship they kept from sinking. For Mooney, Nemeth and Neal, the Cole became a symbol of their grit: attacked but still afloat, crippled but alive. "We got cracked in half," Mooney said, "and we didn't go down." When the Cole left its berth in Norfolk, Va., two months before the blast, no one in the crew could have imagined finding solace--even pride--in mere survival. That would come in time.

Gearing Up for Five-Month Tour It had been the usual Norfolk send-off. Pier 24, a thin spit of concrete near the midpoint of the city's naval base, was crowded with families clutching gifts, reminders of home to stow away for the five-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. Alone, Ray Mooney stayed down in his berth. He had said his goodbyes days earlier in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where he had dropped his wife off at her mother's place. Erica Mooney was nearly nine months' pregnant, and he did not want her left alone in their Norfolk apartment. Mooney, 20, had a year of Navy service behind him. He had enlisted after graduating from high school, convinced he could make a career as a navigator. But his eyes "weren't good enough," and neither were his grades on the oral exams. So he became a gas turbine engine technician. Mooney was good with his hands; wiry, and quick with a wisecrack. He fit right in with the crews down in the Cole's engine rooms. Four turbines powered the Cole, two on each side. Monstrous, loud machines, they were almost identical to the engines that power commercial jets. Getting used to their intricacies required tutoring from someone who knew their every tic. Mooney needed to hook up with a plank owner. Plank owners are the original crews of newly commissioned ships. The Cole's original 1996 crew had been the first to wield the $1-billion warship's prized specifications--its state-of-the-art Aegis combat radar system, its 5-inch guns and vertical Tomahawk missile launchers, even its turbines. Down in the engine rooms, Mooney found a plank owner: Marc Nieto. Like Mooney, Nieto, 24, was a Wisconsin native--a bodybuilding fanatic and jokester who oversaw the Cole's air-conditioning and reverse-osmosis water purification systems. Nieto could break down and rebuild almost anything. He dispensed nicknames like royal commissions to the young sailors who struck up with him. Nemeth, 19, an Ohio farm boy who worked the turbine on the port side, became "Joe Namath." Neal, 20, a Florida kid who tended the ship's generator and shared Nieto's Norfolk apartment, became "Real Deal Neal." Kenneth Clodfelter, a Virginia hull technician, became "Cooter," named for his habit of bending his baseball cap like one of the stars of "The Dukes of Hazard." Nieto christened himself "Nitro." A rowdy bachelor who once prowled for "Nitro girls" while on liberty, Nieto was settling down. He had plans to leave the Navy amid the Gulf tour as soon as the Cole ported in Bahrain. He also had marriage plans--with fireman Jaimie DeGuzman, one of a growing number of women assigned to the Cole. "Everyone in the engine room knew about them," Neal said. But the pair kept their professional distance. On liberty, Neal said, "you were lucky if you saw them holding hands."

Filling the Time With Training Drills There was little time for fraternization once the Cole was out in the Atlantic. The ship's captain, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, kept the crew busy with disaster training drills. Almost every other day for three weeks, the general quarters alarm droned, sending sailors scurrying to equipment lockers, donning fire retardant suits. New sailors had to master "egress training." Blindfolded, they were set loose deep in the ship, stumbling down passageways until they learned to recognize its contours. There was good reason for the exercises: The ship's officers were worried about the Cole's large new class of young, unseasoned sailors. To Senior Chief Petty Officer John Henderson, an 18-year Navy veteran, drills were the essence of Navy life. "The more you do it, the more it becomes second nature," the 40-year-old Virginian said. By the time the ship reached the Mediterranean, Lippold seemed satisfied the training was taking root. He cut the drills to once a week. On Aug. 24, the day the Cole ported in Barcelona, Spain, Mooney learned by e-mail that his wife was in labor. While most of the crew scrambled off on liberty, he stayed aboard the ship to call Erica. That night, Lippold ordered most of the crew back by 2 a.m. Some sailors groused that it was typical of a rule-bound Navy man. But by the next liberties in France, Malta and Slovenia, Lippold loosened up, letting the crew stay out until 6 a.m. "We figured it was all part of his getting to know us," Nemeth said. The gravity of their mission loomed as the Cole neared the Persian Gulf. Passing Yugoslavia, Lippold ordered the ship's e-mail shut down as a precaution to prevent Serbian radar monitors from picking up sensitive information.

Out in the Mediterranean, the Cole suddenly was plagued by a series of mechanical failures. The first was a lube oil pump. Then, a week later, as the Cole prepared to take on fuel from an oiler near the Suez Canal, a general quarters alarm sounded. In the Main One engine room on the port side, shafts of flame and smoke roared out of One-Alpha, one of the unit's two turbines. Neal and Cooter Clodfelter manned a fire hose. Nieto directed the emergency teams. They had the fire out quickly enough. But the engine was a loss. To compensate, Lippold ordered a second turbine shut down on the starboard side. That left the Cole with only two engines, reducing its top speed from 31 knots to 27 knots--about 30 mph. It meant the Cole would take longer to pass through the Red Sea on its way to the Persian Gulf.

Yemeni Pilot Arrives Late As he peered from the bridge on the morning of Oct. 12, Jesse Neal didn't like what he saw. It was hard to glimpse the bluffs through the fog, but he could make out a warren of warehouses and minarets near the docks. "I don't feel good about this place," he remembers telling one of the navigators. At 5:30, a fresh crew of navigators had assembled. Neal and Nemeth arrived to act as liaisons with the engine room. A pilot from the Yemeni port authority was due to arrive to guide the Cole in through the harbor's 130-foot-deep approaches. But by 6:30, he was nowhere in sight. An ensign reached the tardy pilot by radio and was irked by the man's response. "It seemed like the guy had an attitude," Neal recalled, "[The ensign] didn't let the Yemeni guy know it, but we could tell he was steamed." Clad in a starched white uniform, he finally boarded--an hour late. Met by Lippold and another officer, he said nothing about the delay, only telling the navigators "how we'd be positioned and which side we're going to port on."

But what appeared ominous to the enlisted men was taken differently by the Cole's officers. According to Henderson, Lippold and "the XO [Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Chris Peterschmidt] were trying to get into port early. They didn't want to be stuck there all day. . . . We pulled in as early as we could and pressed the pilot to come out early. And they said no, they would come out at the scheduled time." The Cole's entire schedule "was in flux," Henderson recalled. "Lots of things were going on in the Gulf. The captain and the XO wanted to get into the [Persian Gulf] theater as soon as they could." The crew was well aware of the rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. They could log on to the Internet. The ship's televisions usually could get CNN via satellite dishes. News accounts were taped up on electrical panels outside the ship's galley. When the Cole passed through the Suez Canal, its security was tightened under a five-stage Navy set of "Threatcon" guidelines--from "Alpha," the most relaxed level, to "Bravo," the next, more intense level. The Cole's 50-caliber machine guns were uncovered but not manned. Armed sentries began roaming the decks.

Those measures were in effect again as the Cole moored to the fuel station in Aden. Under Bravo, the Cole was obligated to keep "unauthorized craft" away from the ship and "identify and inspect work boats." Small picket boats could have been used to stop and inspect approaching craft--although the oil platform may have obstructed the crew's ability to lower them into the water. But picket boats were among several security options not taken by the Cole, according to a list of precautions issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "When we were in the Mediterranean," Henderson said, "I can't say we gave a lot of thought to the small boats [that approached]. As we went into the Arabian theater, I don't think we did anything differently." By 11 a.m., two black service boats had come and gone without incident. Mooney, standing topside, watched them along with the sentries and patrols. "We had eyes all over the place," he said. In the distance, he watched two merchant vessels transferring cargo. Beyond them were several oil rigs, anchored in a deeper channel. Nothing changed for long minutes. The water around the Cole was clear and calm. Then, where there had been only water, Mooney noticed a small white boat.

In an Instant, 17 Were Lost At the head of the mess line, just as Andy Nemeth was getting hungry, he saw Marc Nieto and his crew--firemen Patrick Roy, Joshua Parlett and "Zeke" Swenchonis--striding down the "p-way," or passageway, in work coveralls. "What's up?" Nemeth said. "We're gonna go work on the ROs [reverse osmosis system]," Nieto called, still moving. Nemeth turned back to the grill. Mess cook Lakeina Francis was preparing a batch of fajitas, enough to feed 20. Several feet away, cook Ronchester Santiago was manning an electric grill. Nearby, although Nemeth did not see them, Seamen James McDaniels and Lakiba Palmer, radar display specialist Tim Saunders and information systems technician Tim Gauna all had arrived for lunch. They were less than 10 feet from the Cole's port side. Signalman Cherone Gunn was out in the p-way. Seaman Craig Wibberly and electronics technicians Kevin Rux and Ronald Owens were somewhere nearby. In the next cabin, Chief Richard Costelow had joined six other petty officers for lunch. On the deck below in the ship's oil lab, Ensign Andrew Triplett was testing the fuel that was still pumping aboard the ship. Cooter Clodfelter was in the hull techs' shop next door. Cooter liked to play country music on a portable CD player while he worked. His favorites were Waylon Jennings and George Strait. In an instant, they were all gone. Seventeen Navy heroes. Only Nemeth survived. He would honor them later.

'It Was All Slo-Mo; Weird' Ray Mooney saw it first. The fireball singed his eyes, rained shrapnel on his face and drove him backward. Somehow he stayed on his feet. The roar was deafening. He thought his left eardrum had collapsed. When he steadied himself, Mooney's "adrenaline kicked in." He cursed. "I saw them do it! I saw them do it!" he screamed. No one was listening. Nemeth never heard the sound. He was bucked into the air, "flying like Superman. It was all slo-mo; weird. I didn't have any time to think." His head struck the ceiling, then an airborne cabinet and, when he landed, a loose door slammed into his back. Yellow fuel sprayed over him. As his eyes focused, he could see the collapsed bulkhead. Steel kitchen equipment lay crushed like hollow tin. The deck was broken and jagged, like something in a carnival fun house. It had telescoped upward, as narrow as 4 feet to the ceiling in some spots. Everyone was gone in the smoke and darkness. He looked again, saw someone on the deck and, peering closer, realized it was half of someone. He looked away and saw the other half of the body crumpled in a sink. He took a few steps more and noticed a severed arm. Further away, there was life: a silhouette of a man helping a woman up off the deck. Nemeth stood for five minutes. Maybe it was 10. It seemed that long. He coughed, tasted oil and wondered if a fuel line had burst. He wobbled out of the galley, blindly patting the wall. It was his egress training kicking in. He felt a softness--the bags where fire suits were stored. That meant he was near the medical area. He groped his way to the door, but there was no one inside. He looked down, saw blood dribbling on the deck beneath his feet. It was from his face. He sighed and covered his head with his arm, tottering on.

Turning a corner, he almost bumped into a seaman named Allen. "Hey, Nemeth, set in Zebra!" the sailor yelled. He wanted Nemeth to close all the hatches marked Zebra, a precaution against flooding. When the sailor saw Nemeth's bloodied face, he apologized. He took Nemeth by the shoulders and led him to the Central Control Station, where medics had set up a makeshift trauma unit. Sailors were lying everywhere. Some moaned, others stared off vacantly. Someone wrapped Nemeth's face in an Ace bandage and moved him aft, toward the ship's laundry, where uninjured sailors were treating more wounded. Someone began unwrapping his bandage. It was Jaimie DeGuzman, Nieto's girlfriend. Nemeth told her Marc probably was down in Main One, the engine room. "I had no idea it was blown apart," Nemeth said later. DeGuzman had no medical training, but Nemeth had taken several courses in high school. "How bad's my cheek?" he asked. She described a gash that went clear to the bone. Nemeth grimaced. He coached her as she placed a gauze patch over the wound and fastened it with tape from his ear to his nose, then mopped up the blood leaking from slashes in his forehead and scalp.

In the chief's mess, John Henderson was fading in and out. The blast had propelled him into the air like a bean bag. He came down on his head. Hearing himself moaning for help, he blacked out. He came to again, dazed, in a p-way on the starboard side. Medics were working around him. His head throbbed. The orbit around his left eye was cracked and swollen shut, he learned later. All he knew was he hurt. Then more darkness.

Mooney still was "going like a madman," lurching through the debris. He found a fountain and splashed water in his eyes. It "stung like crazy," and he knew he needed treatment. Someone grabbed him and shepherded him to a trauma unit. Saline solution was swabbed into Mooney's eyes. The intent was to clear out the blood and shrapnel filaments lodged there. But his eyes swelled shut. As far as he knew, he was a blind man.

No Mistaking Events for a Drill The explosion caught Jesse Neal, climbing down from his bunk, in midair. He plunged into a wall, then scrambled to his feet. He thought the ship's generator had exploded. After all the disaster training, this one was real. Neal found his fire suit and struggled to wriggle into it. Around him men were yelling: "Go! Go! Go!" The ship was listing to port. He donned an air mask, slipped on gloves and headed for the center of the ship. Screams came from the chief's mess. Turning into a p-way with others from his bunk, Neal saw the entry blocked by a collapsed steel wall. The sailors tugged at the wall with their hands until it gave way. Inside, steel cables flopped from the ceiling. Petty officers moaned like cattle. The sailors hefted the wounded up toward the makeshift trauma units. They had not seen an uninjured officer yet, but Neal and the others knew where to go--they remembered from disaster drills. In the log room, Neal found a petty officer who had a broken arm, ribs and collarbone. His stomach was darkly bruised. "Can't breathe," the man croaked. Neal took off his own air mask and inserted it in the man's mouth. He stayed with him until another sailor happened by. "Go get me another air tank," Neal said. All over the ship, isolated groups of sailors were communicating by sending out runners. A few, with radios that worked, sent teams down into the bowels of the ship to see how bad the damage was. From the deck, Mooney had been one of the first to see the expanse of the hole. Peering over the side, he saw a giant crater, blackened at the edges. Inside was a jumble of steel and rising water. Two sailors crawled out of the hole alive. In the oil lab, flames from the blast had badly scorched Petty Officers Kathy Lopez and Robert McTureous. The pair worked their way out, dropping into the seawater as it poured in. They floated out into the harbor, clinging to lifelines until they were hauled up. Mooney and McTureous, both temporarily blinded, were led down the brow--the ship's steep gangplank--to the refueling platform. Mooney recognized a voice on the way down. "Hey!" Mooney said. "It's Real Deal Neal!" Jesse Neal laughed as he clung to Mooney's arms.

Neal and other sailors led Mooney to a small boat lashed to the platform, where Nemeth, Henderson and Keisha Stidham, another wounded sailor, lay. Henderson still was dazed. Stidham was crying. Mooney was "cracking jokes, like he always does," Nemeth said. "Hey, can you believe this?" the blind comic said. "Man, I can't see too good, but I'm all right." His bravado was a thin facade. Told he would be taken to a Yemeni hospital, Mooney refused to go. Nemeth protested too. "I didn't trust them," Nemeth said. But orders were orders. Ferried to the dock, the wounded were placed in medical vans. When the vans filled, the hospitals sent cars. Mooney and McTureous were helped into the back seat of a Volkswagen. Close behind the van that carried Nemeth, the car made it to the hospital in minutes, but the beds already were filled with American wounded. The driver headed for a second hospital. Blind, clutching the seat in front of him as the car swerved around hairpin turns, Mooney thought he was going to be taken hostage. The Yemeni driver kept "trying to reassure us." But the sound of his voice only made it worse. Mooney panicked. He was helpless, a refugee from a stricken American ship in a country of strangers. "I thought we were going to be hostages. I could see it all in my head." Instead, he was led into a triage unit. When a nurse told him she wanted to give him a sedative, Mooney lost it. "No shots! No IVs! No sedatives!" he yelled. It was not until nightfall, exhausted, that he finally relented. Word was passed around the hospital that they were going to be airlifted to Germany. Mooney still could not see, but he could sense an end to the madness. He let the night nurse sedate him.

An Uneasy Task of Recovery The crew remaining on the Cole slept up on the flight deck. The inside compartments were like trash incinerators, hot and reeking. Runners brought out water and dry goods from an undamaged storeroom. The air conditioners were out. Almost nothing seemed to work except the 50-caliber machine guns that were manned all night, trained on the docks and the sea from the ship's bow and stern.

Even as the last of the wounded were being lifted down from the ship, crews made their way into the engine rooms to assess the damage. The Cole was listing dangerously to port. Three of four engines were flooding. Neal joined crews lugging pumps down to an auxiliary engine. A layer of fuel oil had mixed with the water rushing in. Before they could start pumping, they spent hours laying a fire retardant foam on the water to inhibit the combustible fuel. The pumps droned on like an orchestra. They required watches every minute. When they shorted out, new pumps were rushed in. The ship's generator had winked out after the blast, but a crew managed to get it working again in half an hour. Hours later, it shut down again, freezing the pumps and sending yet another team dashing down to jump-start it. In the dark that first night, officers began roaming the ship, rounding up the 200 remaining crew members to the flight deck. "Captain's call," they said.

On the flight deck, Cmdr. Lippold, wearing his blue coveralls, stood before them. They had come together as one, Lippold said, bringing shipmates out and saving the destroyer. Neal noticed that the captain's voice was cracking. Several seamen sobbed. On the second day, the Navy flew in teams of divers to search for the dead and begin welding closed the gaping hole at the waterline. A squad of Marines arrived, dispatched to patrol the decks and the oil platform.

Still manning the pumps, Jesse Neal was flagging. His arm throbbed. An ugly infection had set in. He showed it to a medic, who cut out the infected mass and ordered him to stand down. Neal was given antibiotics, and when the medic checked him again, it was only worse. "We need to get you outta here," he told Neal. On the boat out from the refueling platform, Neal looked back. It might be the last time he would ever see an American ship damaged in action. His ship.

* * * Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago and staff writer Aaron Zitner in Washington contributed to this story.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 12, 2000

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