The explosion was sudden, violent, deafening, so intense that 8,500 tons of steel lifted out of the water and crashed back down. The very metal of the ship shimmered and rippled in front of their eyes, remembered survivors. The force of it threw retired Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney out of his chair and sent a shipmate flying over his head. Then, everything went black.
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At first, Abney thought the noise came from simultaneous explosions in a movie he was watching in the chiefs mess. Others thought there had been a kitchen explosion. The ship was also taking on some 200,000 gallons of fuel, and most Sailors assumed something had gone horribly, fatally wrong.
But the explosion had been on the port side of the ship, the opposite side of the fuel tank. It wasn't just an explosion. It wasn't an accident. It was an attack. It was terrorism, and a gaping 40-by-60-foot hole had been ripped into USS Cole (DDG 67), sending her listing by about 15 degrees.
When the ship had arrived in Aden, Yemen, that morning, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, something felt off. (Some Sailors had gut feelings of doom for much of the cruise.) The port itself was eerie, with rusting, hulking wrecks of Iraqi tankers abandoned almost a decade before, following Desert Storm. A small civilian craft lay on its starboard side, half submerged.
"I didn't have good feelings when we pulled into Aden," retired Master Chief Hospital Corpsman James Parlier, the ship's command master chief, explained. "Those things started sending up red flags, not so much I expected an attack, but things didn't seem right. You can just be more on guard, but we were given an order to go in on Force Protection Bravo. ... Even if we were at a higher force protection, there's no way we would have found the explosives in that boat alongside the ship."
The crew had undergone anti-terrorist force protection training only days prior, but it hadn't focused on waterborne attacks, or the dangers lurking in Yemen specifically. And, as Abney pointed out, under existing rules of engagement, Sailors couldn't fire on anyone before being attacked. "In this case, the attack was a huge blast."
The Yemeni pilot who directed the Cole to a concrete pier seemed jumpy and anxious to get off the ship, recalled Abney and Parlier. He insisted that the ship pull straight in, her bow pointed toward the port. The Cole's captain, by contrast, wanted the bow facing out to sea so they could leave quickly. The captain prevailed, but then tugboats meant to guide the destroyer rushed in so quickly that gunners' mates had to point their rifles and tell them to back off.
A small boat then pulled up alongside the ship. Abney photographed the seemingly ubiquitous garbage barge, but there was no way to know the destruction it would wreak at 11:18 a.m.
"It was a deafening sound," said Abney. "But I recall more just feeling it than hearing it. The pressure of it knocked me back in my chair. Along with it, all the lights went out. The next thing I can recall from the blast is just this putrid, kind of acrid smoke. It was very hard to breathe."
Even getting down to the ground didn't help, he continued. When he felt his way to where the door should have been, it was blocked. The galley exit was obstructed as well. Along with several injured, dead and dying chiefs, Abney was trapped. He and a shipmate began banging on the bulkhead, hoping, praying someone would hear them before they all suffocated from the smoke.
"I had a crew member grab me by the right arm in a death grip and said, 'Master Chief, you've got to help me. I'm dying,'" remembered Abney. "I ended up stepping on one of the other crew members. ... It was pitch black and it was basically feeling my way around."
After one of the Sailors cut into the mess and freed the chiefs, Abney went looking for help for his shipmates. He was stunned at the destruction he found throughout the ship. "The deck came up and was pushed all the way into the bulkhead. ... There were people that were crushed up against this bulkhead.
"There were people that were still trapped in the machinery, caught in various different things. ... There were two shipmates that were triaged and were laying in the (passageway). One, I think was already deceased and the second was struggling for breath and later did not make it. ... Just to see this crew member struggling for breath and the amount of trauma that it took to put his eye out of socket, it really hit me then that we were in bad shape."
Parlier was hard at work triaging the patients. He had missed the blast's epicenter by minutes. Had he been in his office, instead of in a meeting, he would most likely have been killed instantly. With the electricity out on most of the ship, and the phones dead, Parlier wasn't initially sure if the Cole's regular doc was alive. He quickly provided some battlefield training to crew members on how to move the wounded - there weren't enough accessible stretchers - and how to provide some rudimentary medical care. There were a lot of shrapnel wounds, broken bones, blast injuries.
One 19-year-old Sailor, Parlier remembered, "was in horrific condition. The crew didn't know what to do with him. We put him on a door, basically, and put him back out aft. We took him out on the fantail on the flight deck. ... I tried to do CPR on him, but he was ... in really, really bad shape. He was the first guy I've ever lost in my life, and I had to make a call because we had over 25 casualties on the fantail and flight deck alone, people screaming." Ultimately, 17 Sailors died. Most were in the chiefs mess with Abney or in the galley, lined up for chow.
With the assistance of the U.S. ambassador and some local authorities, corpsmen managed to evacuate the seriously wounded to a Yemeni hospital within that critical first hour. Able-bodied Sailors accompanied them as walking blood banks and body guards. American doctors in country on a mission trip also rushed to the hospital, which Parlier said was crucial in saving lives. From there, wounded Sailors were life-flighted to Navy hospitals in Djibouti and Sigonella, Italy, before receiving more complex treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Many of the deceased Sailors remained on the ship, however, inaccessible and officially classified as missing. (The Navy would continue recovering remains for years following the attack.) In temperatures that climbed well above 100 degrees, their bodies quickly decayed, making the situation unbearable for the Sailors left aboard the ship. The stench, exacerbated by rotting food, was choking, while flies swarmed the ship. Still worse was knowing that shipmates and good friends - in one case a fiance - lay trapped below and no one could do anything.
It's not like being on a carrier. When you're on a small boy, you know almost everybody on the ship. ... These crew members were like your kids. It was pretty devastating. ... It would be like someone bombing your home. You worked with these kids every day. The Navy environment isn't like any other work environment. ... You're eating three meals a day with these folks. ... Twenty four hours a day, you're running across the same people, and you kind of get to know their different quirks and personalities and what makes them tick." - STCM Paul Abney
In those first terrible days after the attack, as they fought to keep the Cole afloat, shutting down sections of the ship, jerry rigging pumps, forming bucket brigades, survivors didn't have latrines, showers, drinking water, hot food or even MREs. Although the embassy arranged food delivery from an Aden hotel, many of the Sailors, including Parlier, didn't trust it. They made do with snacks and sodas until help arrived.
That help first came from the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Marlborough (F233), which arrived the next day, bearing potable water, followed over the next few days by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), USS Haws (FFG 53) and other ships as part of Operation Determined Response.
"There wasn't a dry eye," remembered Parlier of that first glimpse of an American flag. "There were tears in Sailors' eyes because we knew our shipmates had come to help us." The best part? Chefs on the Haws cooked up a big batch of chili mac for Cole Sailors. "We had our first hot meal in days and, man, that chili mac, it just raised the spirits of the crew."
As the U.S. assets poured into Aden - the ships, Marines to guard the ship, SEALs, divers, recovery teams for the remains, engineers, investigators - each asset provided a layer of protection and security for the Cole crew. They had been alone in a hostile country, their major weapons systems disabled. It had been impossible to know who to trust. For example, at one point, as the Yemeni army set up a large perimeter around the wounded ship, its guns were actually pointed at the wounded destroyer.
"You felt pretty darn vulnerable," Parlier said. "You didn't know what was going to happen next. ... At one point, we were low crawling because there were inbound boats. We didn't know if they were armed or not. The .50 caliber accidentally went off. You're on pins and needles. ... We always thought there was another attack coming."
"It was sad" to leave his ship behind, said Parlier, who was evacuated to Norfolk, Virginia, via Oman and Germany with the rest of the crew. "I was proud of her. ... I was saddened. I would have never thought in my life that I would have to go through something like that."
At the time, the Navy wasn't sure the Cole, transported to Pascagoula, Mississippi, via the heavy lift ship MV Blue Marlin, could be salvaged. Officials argued that there were better uses of money, but the crew disagreed. They thought decommissioning it would send a terrible message to the enemy.
Today, Parlier is thrilled that the Cole is back, stronger than ever, still defending the nation. "She needed to be put back in the water to show [the terrorists] that we weren't going to be defeated and we were going to stand steadfast as Americans."
A memorial on board honors the fallen Sailors, but, Parlier added, "she's not a museum. She's an American warship and she's out there just like other destroyers, serving and doing their job, doing what they're trained to do so I can be safe at home."
Editor's note: Read about how Cole crewmembers used their training to save their ship and learn more about Abney and Parlier by clicking here.