USS Cole, badly damaged by terrorist attack, sails for home after months of repairs

Friday, April 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) _ Rebuilt and combat ready, the USS Cole returned to the open seas Friday, 18 months after a terrorist attack in Yemen left 17 sailors dead and crippled the ship.

Hundreds of people cheered and waved U.S. flags along the shore as the Cole, gleaming in the sunlight, set off from Northrop Grumman's Ingalls Shipyard for its home port in Norfolk, Va.

The Cole returns to duty with 14 months worth of repairs and the additions of many new features, including 17 stars laid in the hallway floor _ one for each of the sailors killed when an explosion tore a hole in the ship's side on Oct. 12, 2000.

Navy leaders said Friday that the return is a clear and confident sign of America's commitment to overcome international terrorism.

The send-off was as much a tribute to the hundreds of shipyard workers who handled repairs as it was a farewell to the destroyer, said Rear Adm. John G. Morgan Jr., commander of the USS Enterprise Battle Group.

``Our job is to do the nation's work ... around the world, around the clock. That's the gift you've given us,'' Morgan said.

At dawn Friday, sailors made their way aboard the Cole carrying duffel bags. Many shook hands with workers as they arrive at the shipyard, the same place where the Cole was built and christened in 1995.

``We've been waiting for this day for 18 months,'' said Mike Chapman, an Ingalls employee and the general ship superintendent for the Cole.

Security was extremely tight with military police and guard dogs posted around the shipyard. No official public ceremony was planned, but people gathered along the shore nearby while workers stood on cranes and unfinished hulls of other boats to watch the Cole's departure.

The crew that departed Friday includes about 40 sailors who survived the attack on the guided missile destroyer.

Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has been blamed by U.S. officials for both the Sept. 11 attacks and the Cole blast, carried out by terrorists who pulled an explosives-laden skiff alongside the destroyer as it refueled.

Cmdr. Kevin Sweeney said Thursday that the vessel will return to its home port in Norfolk, Va., but he didn't know its next destination. Officials said the ship would participate in some unspecified sea exercises while on its way.

The Cole has been upgraded with two new 27-ton main engines, 350,163 feet of electrical cable, 550 tons of new steel and improved security, among other changes, he said.

The Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington says it expects the final tab to be about $250 million _ about one-quarter of the ship's original cost.

The Cole is protected by patrols and helmeted crew members posted at guns along the railings. It went through a two-day sea trial last week.

``Everything worked,'' he said. ``The crew performed beautifully.''