Memorial for 17 sailors killed in USS Cole blast

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ After two joy-filled homecomings, Wednesday was a day for mourning at the USS Cole's home port.

Several thousand people _ including seven wounded sailors in wheelchairs _ packed the Norfolk Naval Station to remember 17 sailors killed in last week's terrorist bombing in Yemen.

``Today we are reminded that freedom is not free, that the price we must pay is exceedingly high,'' Chaplain Barry Black said as he opened the memorial service under slate-gray skies.

President Clinton arrived at the station accompanied by his daughter Chelsea; Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Attorney General Janet Reno and Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Ambulances arrived just before the service and unloaded the wounded sailors _ some still hooked to IVs for pain medication.

``One told me, 'Doc, you couldn't hold me here with a chain of wild horses,''' said Capt. Martin Snyder, senior attending physician. ``For a lot of them, this is closure.''

Several in the crowd, dotted with white-uniformed sailors, wept as the men were rolled to their spot in front of the podium.

Before the service, Clinton met privately with 36 injured sailors, six of whom were on gurneys. He also visited with 85 family members of the dead and missing sailors, pausing to spend a few minutes with each family.

Some people showed up early for the service, including Jacqueline Blake, who sat in the rain in a canvas American flag jacket. Her husband, shipfitter Roy Blake, is on the carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf _ part of the same group of ships that included the Cole.

``When you see your husband depart and go away for six months, you really take a lot for granted. ... It's the price we pay for our freedom,'' she said. ``I'm, like, numb and really sad.''

Crew members still aboard the Cole in Yemen won't be able to view the memorial on TV ``primarily because they're working hard 24 hours a day to keep the ship afloat,'' U.S. Atlantic Fleet Commander-in-Chief Adm. R.J. Natter said.

On Sunday, 33 returning sailors were given a hero's welcome at the station, with family members surrounding them as the Atlantic Fleet band played.

Wednesday's memorial service was held at Naval Station's Pier 12, one of the long stretches of steel and concrete where massive Navy aircraft carriers tie up when in port. Nearby were two of the Cole's sister ships, the destroyers USS Ross and USS McFaul, flanked by the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and Eisenhower.

Chief Petty Officer Eric Kafka, who was among those injured, broke into tears as he described the loss of his shipmates.

``We all stayed together, fought together, played together. We weren't just a team or the Navy. We were a Cole family, out there doing what we do, going in harm's way,'' he said on NBC's ``Today'' show on Wednesday. ``Some of my family's still apart, and I very much want the rest of my family back here with us so we can get together, rebuild the Cole, go back to sea and do what we do.''