Officials say Cole blast ‘more than just TNT’

Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen – A blast more powerful “than just TNT” buckled the USS Cole’s deck and turned the attack boat into “confetti size” pieces that rained down on the crippled destroyer, officials said Sunday in accounts that shed light on the enormous devastation of the bombing.

The details, provided by senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, also raised questions about the level of security in a port selected last year as a key refueling point for U.S. warships traveling between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

There has been no credible claim of responsibility from Thursday’s apparent suicide attack, which killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 others and punched a 40-by-40-foot chasm in the hull. Yemeni security forces have detained more than a dozen people for further questioning, but no arrests have been announced.

It ranks as the deadliest terrorist attack on the U.S. military since the bombing of an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19.

“The ship has suffered a tremendous blow,” said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the military commander of the U.S. task force sent to the ship.

On the listing deck of the Cole, crew members gathered for religious services and offered prayers for their dead shipmates, some still wedged behind contorted metal below. A planned formal memorial was delayed because the crew worked through the night to control flooding after another bulkhead collapsed, officials said.

Later Sunday evening, 33 injured sailors from the Cole arrived at the ship’s home port of Norfolk, Va., to cheers of awaiting family members and fellow sailors. Some of the injured needed canes or crutches to disembark the plane that returned them home, while at least four others were carried off on stretchers.

Crying family members and children waving small U.S. flags surrounded the sailors in group hugs, reluctant to let go as they were moved toward buses and ambulances for the wounded to be taken to Portsmouth Naval Hospital. All 30 men and three women were expected to be hospitalized at least overnight for observation.

The other six injured remained hospitalized in Germany.

Meanwhile, experts began scouring the ravaged ship in search of clues and the bodies of sailors still missing.

Divers began searching water-filled compartments. Crews with powerful metal cutters will try to slice through the wreckage to reach bodies: two visible and 10 still missing and perhaps trapped behind floors and walls bent wildly by the blast.

Terrorism and explosive experts combed through scenes described by a U.S. official as “utter devastation.” On the deck, “confetti size” pieces from the wooden attack boat were collected, the official said.

Among the tasks for the investigators: looking for residue that could indicate the type of explosives. One of the officials said the power of the blast suggested “more than just TNT,” which could suggest a well-organized and supplied group.

The blast at the Cole’s waterline was close to the dining area for senior enlisted officers. Most hands were busy finishing the docking. A few minutes later, however, and the mess area would have started to fill.

The U.S. Navy has “blanket clearance” to dock at Aden, where it keeps its own stockpile of fuel in cooperation with a private Yemeni company. Normally, a 48-hour advance notice is given of a ship’s arrival. The information is passed on to Yemeni port authorities and the fuel agent, officials said.

U.S. officials have placed a moratorium on naval stops in Aden for the moment. A final decision will be made once the $1 billion guided missile destroyer is towed away or taken aboard a special carrier vessel. The ship could leave Aden as early as this week.

Meanwhile in Washington, U.S. officials defended the Navy’s decision to refuel ships in Yemen and promised Sunday to catch and punish those responsible no matter how long it takes.

“We will track them down. We owe that to the families,” Secretary of Defense William Cohen said.

Speaking Sunday of the dangers inherent in using such ports as Aden, President Clinton’s national security adviser said limited fueling options in the Persian Gulf area require such stops despite the terrorism risk.

“This entire area is a high-threat area,” Sandy Berger said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But Berger noted that 25 ships have refueled in the Arabian Peninsula port without incident in the past 18 months.

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

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