Crippled Cole begins journey home

Sunday, October 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ADEN, Yemen (AP) _ As a recording of the American national anthem played Sunday, the crippled USS Cole was towed out of the Aden port that had been a death trap for 17 of its sailors.

The homeward-bound surviving crew stood at attention on the deck as two yellow tug boats steadily and slowly pulled the destroyer away. Two other tugboats, one yellow and one gray, pushed. Two U.S. patrol boats led the procession and a helicopter hovered overhead.

A white cloth had been removed from the 40-by-40-foot hole suspected terrorist bombers had blasted in the Cole's left side on Oct. 12. The blackened hole was visible from shore. The trip back to the United States is expected to take about five weeks.

Officials believe two suicide bombers maneuvered a small boat packed with explosives next to the Cole and then detonated it. The explosion killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 and tore much of the midsection of the ship to shreds of metal and wire.

Yemenis were jubilant that the Cole was finally leaving.

``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 Ibrahim Ahmed.

Tight security in the harbor had made it difficult for Yemeni fisherman to work in the weeks since the bombing.

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 waists, laughing and pointing at the ship. Women draped in scarfs or chadors watched from windows and balconies.

``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.

As it left, the Cole passed a cluster of buildings on the shore where two suspects are believed to have lived as they planned their attack.

Out of sight from shore, the Cole will be loaded onto the Norwegian ``heavy lift'' ship the Blue Marlin.

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.

Monday, the Blue Marlin will fill her ballast tanks, slowly submerging her deck and maneuvering under the Cole. Then it will empty the ballast tanks, rising and lifting the Cole out of the water.

The process will take at least 24 hours. The timing is uncertain because the condition of the Cole will be better understood once it is lifted out of the water.

The Cole's Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles and other munitions, which were not damaged in the bombing, will remain aboard in their normal storage area, officials said.

Most of the crew of about 300 has remained aboard since the attack. A small number are to stay aboard for the trip back to the United States; the rest will be flown home.

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, spokesman Cmdr. Greg Smith said.

Although the Navy initially said it planned to take the Cole back to its home port of Norfolk Naval Station in Va., Smith said Friday that it might instead take it to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., where it was built, or to the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Bath, Maine, which built other Arleigh Burke-class destroyers like the Cole.

The Navy has told Congress it may take $150 million to repair the Cole, which cost $1 billion to build.