Bomb explodes 17 promises to come home

By DAVID CRARY

Associated Press

Some were still teen-agers. Two were young women. Several had fathers who preceded them in serving their country. Most grew up in small or mid-size towns and joined the Navy with adventure as well as duty in mind.

On Thursday, 17 sailors died doing their duty when a suspected terrorist bomb tore through the hull of the destroyer USS Cole during a refueling stop in Yemen.

One of the victims, Cherone Gunn, aspired to be a policeman and saw the Navy as a steppingstone. Another sailor, Kevin Rux, actually tried police work in Connecticut after 10 years in the Navy, but reconsidered and re-enlisted a year ago.

Sharon Priepke of Fond du Lac., Wis. – whose son, 24-year-old Marc Nieto, was among the dead – probably spoke for all the grieving families.

“He had goals to the sky and he was going to achieve those goals,” she said, clutching some of her son’s commendations. “He was just starting to live his life.”

A brief look at the victims:

  • Lakeina Francis, 19, of Woodleaf, N.C., a mess-management specialist aboard the Cole, graduated from high school last year and followed her father into the Navy. “She’s a young African-American woman who was pursuing her career and continuing her education,” said her father, Ron Francis. “I’m proud of how we raised her to be a Christian and a lovable person.” Two of Francis’ brothers, James and David, play football at West Rowan High School. “We’re just going to work with the boys, help them through the day,” said the principal, Henry Kluttz.

  • Information Systems Technician Tim Gauna, 21, of Rice, Texas, was a 1997 graduate of Ennis High School. Teachers said he was a quiet student who excelled in baseball and art. In 1999, he joined the Navy as a radio man. “He went there to better himself, to make a better life for himself,” said his mother, Sarah Gauna. The family last heard from Gauna by phone a few days ago as the Cole headed for a secret destination. “He just kept saying, ‘We’re in dangerous waters, Mom, but we’re OK. I’ll be OK. I promise you,’ ” Sarah Gauna said.

  • Signalman Seaman Recruit Cherone Gunn, 22, grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., but lived with an aunt and uncle in Rex, Ga., in recent years. He enrolled in the Navy in January because he wanted to be a policeman someday. “When he came here, he was just a young guy out of high school and college wasn’t for him, at least not right away,” said his uncle, Eldawn Taylor. “His game plan was to go through the Navy, serve his country, get some experience.”

  • Ensign Andrew Triplett, 30, from Macon, Miss., had been in the Navy for 13 years. “He was a good family man. He had two children and he was just a likable person,” said his mother, Savannah Triplett, a cook at C&K Super Stop in the small Mississippi town of Shuqualak. “He just loved the Navy. That’s all he used to talk about.” Triplett will be buried in Norfolk, Va., where he lived with his wife, Laurie, and their children.

  • Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronchester Santiago, 22, of Kingsville, Texas, had been in the Navy since graduating in 1996 from H.M. King High School. He was scheduled to get out of the service in December and planned to study electrical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. “He was attracted to the adventure in the Navy,” said his father, Rogelio Santiago, a retired Navy petty officer first class. “He wanted to see the world. He just wanted the experience.”

  • Duties aboard the Cole for Seaman Craig Wibberley, 19, of Williamsport, Md., included raising and lowering the destroyer’s small anchor. “He was a good all-American boy,” said the Rev. Anne Weatherbolt, the Wibberley family minister. “Any time there’s a loss on a small community everybody feels it.” His father, Tom Wibberley, said: “It’s a terrible thing that people would take human lives the way they did. They took a son away from me.”

  • Kevin Rux, 30, of Portland, N.D., was an electronics warfare technician on the Cole and the son of a Navy veteran. “He was career Navy. His dad was career Navy, his uncle was career Navy,” said his mother, Saundra Flanagan, of Bridgeport, W.Va. “He loved the travel. He used to smile and he had a twinkle in his eye when he’d tell us about a certain port he’d been in.” Rux joined the Navy after high school, stayed about 10 years, then tried being a policeman, but decided a year ago to re-enlist.

  • Seaman Recruit Lakiba Palmer, 22, of San Diego graduated in 1996 from San Diego High, where she was a stalwart on the track team. “She was a hard worker and a dedicated athlete, well-liked by the rest of her teammates,” said Paul Locher, her former coach. Palmer specialized in the sprints and 400-meter relay. “We’re all saddened by this,” Locher said.

  • Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class, Kenneth Clodfelter, 21, of Mechanicsville, Va., was planning to sign up for another tour of duty in January. He was the father of a 2-year-old boy, Noah. Clodfelter graduated from Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville in 1997, and was described as a good student who wrestled and played football. He was an Eagle Scout.

  • Engineman 2nd Class Marc Nieto, 24, of Fond du Lac, Wis., joined the Navy six years ago and was just two weeks away from finishing his stint in the service. His mother, Sharon Priepke, said Nieto worked in the engine room on the Cole and loved repairing machinery. “His biggest joy in life was his vehicles, working on the engines. He was always into engines and repairing,” she said.

  • Electronics Warfare Technician 3rd Class Ronald Owens, 24, was a native of Vero Beach, Fla., and married with a 4-year-old daughter. He graduated from Vero Beach High in 1994, joined the Navy in 1998 and had shipped out in August for his first tour. On Wednesday, he e-mailed home: “He told me how much he loved us, and said at the end, ‘Keep smiling. I’ll be home soon,’ ” said his 23-year-old wife, Jaime.

  • Electronics Technician 1st Class Richard Costelow, 35, was from Morrisville, Pa., a blue-collar suburb across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J. His wife and three children had been staying at the Paxtuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, Md. One of his teachers and coaches from Morrisville’s high school remembered Costelow vividly. “He gave 100 percent every day. That kind of kid doesn’t come along too often,” said Bernard Derby.

  • Engineman Fireman Joshua Parlett was also 19 and from Maryland. He came from the small town of Churchville and joined the Navy last year after graduating from high school. “He believed in what he was doing,” said his father, Leroy Parlett.

  • Fireman Gary Swenchonis, 26, of Rockport, Texas, joined the Navy two years ago after four years in the Army. His parents, Gary and Deborah Swenchonis, said he planned to make the Navy his career.

  • Seaman James McDaniels, 19, of Norfolk, Va., was on his first overseas deployment. He planned to stay in the Navy for three years, then use the money he saved to attend college, said his mother, Diane McDaniels. The 6-foot-4 McDaniels – “Little Mac” to his friends and family – played basketball at Norview High School. The day before the explosion, he sent an e-mail to his girlfriend, asking her to tell his mother to mail him combat boots to replace his worn-out pair.

  • Operations Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Saunders, 32, of Ringgold, Va., was a former track and football star at Dan River High School. Principal Carissa Knight remembered him as a kindhearted person involved in a lot of activities. Saunders, a career Navy man, was married and the father of two daughters, ages 10 and 7.

  • Fireman Apprentice Patrick Roy, 19, grew up in Keedysville, Md., a town of 500 with a downtown boasting little more than a post office and a church. Roy attended boarding school at the Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he captained the lacrosse team, managed the wrestling team and acted in school plays. He enlisted after graduating last year. “He was a nice kid who wanted to serve his country,” said Michael Walsh, a family friend.

    Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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