Families Welcome Cole Sailors Home

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Louge Gunn needed a place to lament the death of his son one of the 17 sailors killed in the USS Cole blast.

``When you're in pain like that you think you need a shot of cognac, but what I really needed was a shot of the church,'' he said as his son was remembered at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, where he was christened 22 years ago.

The memorial service for Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn was held Sunday, the same day of the return of his 33 shipmates who were injured in the suspected terrorist attack last week at a Yemeni port.

None of the wounded has a life-threatening injury, and doctors expected some to be released from the hospital Monday.

``We have 33 very tired, very hungry, but very happy sailors,'' said Capt. Martin Snyder, the senior attending physician at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital where the 30 male and three female sailors were taken.

One of the injured sailors, 19-year-old Kesha Stidham of Austin, Texas, told NBC's ``Today'' show Monday that the death toll would have been much worse if the ship had been attacked a few minutes later, because the crew was gathering for lunch.

``I didn't hear anything,'' she said. ``I didn't hear the explosion. I didn't see anything. It just hit me all of a sudden.''

She tearfully recalled those who died, saying, ``It just seems unreal that they're not here anymore.'' And she said she doesn't really want to go back to sea, ``but orders are orders, if I'm ordered to, then I am.''

Soon after the C-141 medical transport plane landed Sunday from Germany, relatives raced across the tarmac to embrace the battered crew members, who came out one by one to a steady ring of applause.

Some walked with the aid of crutches, some got into waiting wheelchairs and a few were on stretchers.

A crowd of about 1,500 sailors in dress white uniforms waited with the 200 relatives, and the Atlantic Fleet band played as the returning group and families boarded buses for the short trip to the hospital.

Stidham's mother, Michelle Poston, said the families had been told to wait but she couldn't, and she rushed to embrace her daughter.

``I had to get to her. I had to touch my daughter,'' Poston told NBC. ``When I saw the airplane coming through the air, the tears just rolled. She was safe, she was on American soil.''

Two banners made by children of crew members were put up on the base's control tower for the arrival. The banners said, ``Our heroes. We join hands and hearts to welcome you home.''

Rear Adm. Clinton Adams, commander of the medical center, said spirits were high among family members, with almost a party-like atmosphere as sailors reunited with their loved ones. ``They are a cohesive bunch,'' Adams said.

Lisa De La Torre, wife of Lt. Anthony De La Torre, the Cole's third in command, said relief was the overwhelming emotion of the relatives. ``They were just very, very grateful,'' said De La Torre, whose husband was unhurt and is still with the ship.

At the Gunn memorial service earlier Sunday, members of the congregation surrounded the fallen sailor's parents, fiancee and three brothers, hugging them and blessing them.

Louge Gunn, a retired chief with the Navy, said he drew comfort from the service and stressed the pride he felt for his son, who enlisted in January.

``He was a hero,'' said Gunn, whose beige jacket was smeared with makeup by the end of the ceremony. ``He gave his life for his country, for something that he loved — the Navy. He was a sailor, a true sailor. His life was fulfilled.''


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