Battered Cole starts long journey home

Herald news services

ADEN, Yemen — Sailors aboard the USS Cole stood at attention as the national anthem played and the battered destroyer glided out of Aden port Sunday, towed by tugboats to a heavy-lift ship that will take it home to repair the gaping hole in its side.

At first light toMday, about 25 miles out, the Navy will begin the 36-hour task, itself risky and unprecedented, of raising the 8,600-ton ship onto the deck of the chartered Norwegian salvage ship Blue Marlin for the five-week, 6,000-mile voyage home.

The Blue Marlin will fill its ballast tanks, slowly submerging its deck, and maneuver under the Cole. Then it will empty the tanks, rising and lifting the Cole out of the water. The process is expected to take at least 24 hours, but the timing isn’t certain because the condition of the damaged ship will only be clear once it is lifted from the water.

For the sailors, the departure meant leaving behind the harbor where 17 shipmates were killed and 39 were injured on Oct. 12 in what officials believe was a suicide bombing attack.

"She left with some help from her friends, but she still left very proudly," Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said of the Cole.

The destroyer’s journey began at 9:20 a.m. local time as the American flag was hoisted on a mast to a hearty cheer from the sailors. Two yellow tugboats steadily and slowly pulled the destroyer out to sea while two more pushed. Two U.S. patrol boats led the procession, and a helicopter made flying runs overhead.

As it inched out of port, the Cole began to blast the song "I wanna be a cowboy, baby" by Kid Rock.

The trip back to the United States was expected to take about five weeks.

As the Cole left the harbor, it passed a cluster of buildings where the two suspects in the bombing are believed to have lived as they planned the attack. Visible from shore was the 40-foot-by-40-foot blackened hole blasted into the ship’s left side. Officials believe the bombers, who have not yet been positively identified, maneuvered a small boat packed with explosives next to the Cole and then detonated it.

The departure of the Cole is a relief for ordinary Yemenis. There has been widespread anger at the United States here for what many Yemenis believe is U.S. bias toward Israel in its confrontations with the Palestinians. Also, tight security in the harbor had made it difficult for Yemeni fishermen to work in the weeks since the bombing.

"It was like a bogeyman keeping our fishermen away. Thank God it has gone. The sight of an American ship in our waters is not a beautiful sight," said one resident, Ibrahim Ahmed.

At another point along the coastal road, about 50 Yemeni men gathered, some wearing the traditional sarong-like Yemeni dress with daggers tucked into their waistbands. When the crippled destroyer appeared, a few men pointed at it and laughed. Women draped in chadors watching from windows and balconies shouted that the sight made them happy.

"We were not comfortable with Americans on our territory. They should have gone. This is an Arab country. They have no business here," Mujahed Awad said.

Bodine said the crisis support personnel that came to Yemen after the attack are beginning to leave. But, she said, the probe has not ended, the U.S. Embassy will maintain a presence in Aden to support the FBI investigation and a group of investigators based on Navy ships.

Most of the crew of about 300 remained aboard the Cole following the attack. A small number were to stay on the destroyer for the trip back to the United States; the rest will be flown home.

The Blue Marlin usually is used to lift and transport commercial cargo such as oil rigs. The Navy signed a $4.5 million contract with the Blue Marlin’s owner, Offshore Heavy Transport of Oslo, Norway, just a few days after the Cole was attacked while refueling in Aden.

The Navy has said it intends to repair the Cole and return it to service, although it has not yet decided where the work will be done.

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