Witness to terror

Herald news services

LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, Germany – Kesha Stidham had just wolfed down some fajitas and shut the mess hall door behind her when a deafening explosion tore through the hull of the USS Cole three decks below, throwing her and dozens of fellow seamen in the air, and raining chunks of shattered walls, ceiling, and floor onto them from all sides.

As suddenly as it had begun, the deafening noise stopped, and the 8,600-ton ship began to list from the water it was taking in through a 40-by-40-foot hole. It was dark, and there was thick, black smoke everywhere. Stidham felt an intense pain, and blood coming from gashes on her face. The deck beneath her was cracked, and she could hear groaning from her fallen shipmates.

At least seven of her fellow crewmen were killed in the suspected terrorist attack on the Navy guided missile destroyer during a refueling stop Thursday, and another 10 are missing and presumed dead. Stidham was one of the luckier ones, among the 39 who were injured but who survived what authorities believe was a suicide attack by a smaller boat as the Cole docked during a refueling stop in the Yemeni port of Aden.

Stidham, a 19-year-old seaman recruit from Austin, Texas, thanked God that the explosion did not happen 10 minutes later, when the entire crew would have been gathered in the mess hall. The call for lunch had just gone out over the ship’s address system, but the crew of about 300 was slower than usual to line up.

Ten minutes later, “the mess decks would have been full of people eating lunch, and the death toll would have been tripled, if not more,” she said. “I wasn’t out the door five seconds when the explosion went off. If I had been inside the mess hall, I’d be dead now.”

The explosion was so powerful, Stidham said, that the blast three decks below the galley area forced two or three entire cabins to burst up onto the main deck.

“I’m keeping this for the rest of my life to remember the event that shattered my face and shattered my life,” the petite blonde said of the jagged plastic that gashed her along her cheekbone, below her bottom lip, and under her chin, requiring 10 stitches and leaving black and blue bruises all over her face.

Far worse than her own injuries is the pain of losing “17 of my closest friends,” Stidham said quietly. “It was a small ship, with only about 300 people aboard, so we all knew each other really well. We saw each other every day, ate together every day; some of us slept in the same berth every day.”

All of the injured sailors are in stable condition, and none is believed to have life-threatening injuries, said Air Force Col. James Rundell, a medical doctor. Two of the injured were on ventilators, and of the five most seriously injured, one is suffering a punctured lung, another serious burns, and the remaining three open fractures, he said.

“They were definitely in shock,” said Navy Lt. James Glaspie, one of 11 military chaplains counseling the survivors.

He said a young woman officer – the sole officer among the injured – was tormented by having to leave those under her command behind. “She was more concerned about her people than about herself,” Glaspie said.

The Cole explosion occurred during a period of intense hostility in the Arab world against the United States and other allies of Israel, as bloody clashes rage between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem. Yemen has been the site of some of the angriest anti-American rallies. On Friday, an explosion rocked the British Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, although no one was injured.

The Pentagon originally suspected that the boat involved in the attack disguised its true mission by first posing as a work boat helping the Cole as it moored.

But a Navy official said Saturday it now appeared that the vessel had not helped out in this way.

Witnesses, on reflection, say they believe that the boat’s crew had not handled any mooring lines but had guided their vessel across the busy Aden harbor directly to the U.S. ship and detonated their powerful explosives once it reached the Cole’s side.

“This’ll all have to be sorted out in the investigation,” the Navy official said.

“It suggests that it may have been less of a carefully planned inside job and more of something that was put together to just exploit the normal situation in the harbor,” said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It may also mean we need to be somewhat more vigilant about this sort of threat.”

Five bodies of those killed aboard the Cole were flown from Ramstein Air Base to Dover, Del., Saturday, officials said. Memorials are tentatively planned for Wednesday in Norfolk.

The Cole will be brought back to Norfolk, Va., its homeport, for repairs aboard a massive “heavy lift” vessel, the commander of the Atlantic Fleet said.

The Blue Marlin, a commercial salvage ship, will hoist the destroyer out of the water and place it on a massive open deck for the trip home, said Adm. Robert Natter. Almost all of the crew members will then fly back to Norfolk. The Blue Marlin is in the Persian Gulf, but it could be several weeks before it reaches Aden.

There have been no credible claims of responsibility for the blast. One U.S. official said that reflects a trend among militant groups. To elude intelligence-gathering, many have not been claiming responsibility for their attacks.

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