Desperate Hours

Deborah Courtney wanted to sail on a warship after she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1990. It took a while: Courtney had to bide her time as an admiral's aide until the rules barring women from combat duty were changed in 1994. Finally given the duty she longed for, she was steadily promoted and became the chief engineering officer aboard the USS Cole, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Her baptism by fire began when she was blown out of her chair in her stateroom by a terrorist bomb on the morning of Oct. 12, 2000, as the ship refueled in the port of Aden, Yemen.

The bomb almost cut the Cole in half. Flammable fuel oil showered down on the deck and sprayed through the flooded compartments of the ship. Torn electrical cables arced and sparked, threatening to torch a conflagration. Most of the ship was plunged into darkness. Pulling on an oxygen mask, Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Courtney headed through the smoke and murk for her battle station. An athletic woman with a pleasant but no-nonsense manner, Courtney says she "loves her engineers." She had carefully trained them for emergencies. Before shipping out, she had gone to her local Home Depot and bought--at her own expense--80 Maglite flashlights, one for each of her crew. During the desperate hours ahead, as her engineers crawled through the wreckage in search of wounded sailors, shutting off circuit breakers to avert an inferno and laying cable to restore power, those flashlights would come in handy.

Such small acts of preparation and leadership spared the Cole from being remembered as the first major American ship to be sunk by enemy action since the Pacific War in 1945. Various official inquiries have focused on who is to blame for failing to prevent the terrorist attack on the Cole that killed 17 sailors and wounded 42. The muddy verdict: everyone and no one up and down the chain of command. A secret report on an FBI investigation, obtained by NEWSWEEK, closely links the bombing to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden (following story). But little attention has been paid to the effort to save a ship that came close to becoming a terrorist trophy of war on the bottom of Aden harbor. The ordeal, which did not climax until the third night, is a timeless story of courage and ingenuity, with some distinctly modern-day twists.

With its crew of 249 men and 44 women, the Cole, a 500-foot, 8,300-ton high-tech warship bound for patrol duty in the gulf, was making a routine six-hour "gas-and-go" stop in Aden. There was little sense of danger on the bridge or below decks. American fighting vessels had been using the dusty port on the south coast of Yemen as a refueling base every month for the past two years. The sailors keeping watch fore and aft held unloaded shotguns, the shells still in ammo belts slung around their waists.

As they steered their craft toward the Cole that morning, the two men in the small white boat looked friendly. One waved. Most of the crew mistook the suicide bombers for trashmen. When the bomb went off at 11:18 a.m., many crew members were lining up outside the galley for lunch (fajitas). "Mission: Impossible" was playing on the mess-room video monitor. Chief Petty Officer Eric Kafka remembered the sensation of the blast as it ripped into the Cole just a few yards away: his chest felt like it was about to cave in. In his stateroom about 150 feet aft, Lt. (j.g.) Robert Overturf saw objects levitating all around him. The ship felt like it was surfing on a "giant wave," he recalled. Overturf noticed an acrid smell, which he recognized as gunpowder. A deck below, executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Chris Peterschmidt, the ship's "XO"--the No. 2 in command--was holding a "morale meeting" to decide whether the ship needed to buy new 32-inch TVs for the crew. The explosion blew an existing TV set out of its brackets on the wall. Peterschmidt went into the passageway to find chaos. Panicked sailors were pushing their way on deck while equally frightened seamen were running below to take cover. Steadier hands were going to battle stations. Petty Officer Ernesto Garcia, a former ranch hand and gulf-war veteran, went toward the blast site to find a gaping hole in the ship. As the water gushed in, one of Garcia's mates could only repeat, "Holy s---."

Men and women with shattered legs and jaws lay in the passageway, calling for help. Commander Peterschmidt, a slight, soft-spoken man, forced himself to remember his training, which required him to ignore the cries and get to his post in the central control station in the heart of the ship. Inside the CCS, bells were ringing, sirens whooping, klaxons blaring. Computer screens signaled massive breakdowns in the ship's systems. Together with Commander Courtney, who joined him in the CCS, Peterschmidt started giving orders to contain the flooding and avert a fire. The Cole had been pumping in 2,200 gallons a minute of high-test fuel when the bomb went off. The smell of fuel was overpowering. At the same time, Courtney's electricians had to rig emergency power lines. For safety reasons, the crew does not use live wiring during drills, but now they had to. "Ma'am, we've never done this before," one of the electricians said to Courtney. "You know how to do it, right?" she asked. "Yes," the electrician said. "Then go do it," she ordered. "Please," she thought, "don't let me get any more men killed."

Courtney had reason to worry. The average age of the crew was 22, and most were on their first cruise. Because the chiefs' mess was right near the blast, most of the senior enlisted men were either trapped or wounded. Yet green young sailors stepped up to fill the gap, shoring leaks, spreading fire retardant and rescuing their mates. "Rank in a lot of ways just evaporated," said Peterschmidt. On deck an enlisted man came up to him and, unbidden, pulled off his superior's insignia--so he would not be picked off by snipers.

The attack on the Cole had triggered a massive rescue effort: warships steaming toward Aden from around the gulf, a detachment of Marines flown in to stand guard, special teams from the FBI and the Navy to survey the damage and help keep the ship afloat until it could be towed to safety. But the basic work of shoring, pumping and repairing the badly wounded ship remained with the Cole's increasingly exhausted crew, working round the clock in intolerable heat (113 degrees in the shade, 130 degrees below deck).

The crew had to stay with the ship if she was ever going to float out of Aden harbor. After the first, intense hours of rescuing crewmates and containing the damage, the ship settled into a grinding routine of work. Officers and sailors, normally rigidly segregated, slept side by side on the deck and shared the same meager junk food (the ship's food stores were destroyed by the blast). Peterschmidt dozed off less than four hours the first two nights. On the third night, after midnight, he heard an ominous sound: the crunch of a bulkhead giving way and the woosh of seawater. One of the ship's two main engine rooms was already flooded; now the other engine room began to fill as well. The Cole listed farther over on her port side. Peterschmidt feared the pressure would break the ship's weakened keel. At just the wrong moment, the ship's one generator conked out. Without power, the main pumps could not run. The Cole went dark and quiet. Peterschmidt could smell rotting food and hear the hull creaking and groaning. "It felt like the ship was dying," he recalled. Over his mobile phone, a senior officer from fleet headquarters, calling from a hotel room in Aden asked him, "You're sinking, aren't you?" Answered Peterschmidt: "Yes, sir." Technology on the billion-dollar, state-of-the-art warship had failed. The enlisted men began forming a bucket brigade. "I kept thinking of our grandfathers in World War II," said Peterschmidt.

It was, he later recalled, his lowest moment. Filthy and despondent, he huddled with the ship's captain, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold. Lippold was "calm, absolutely calm," said Peterschmidt, but the XO could see his captain was exhausted. The ship's small portable pumps could not boost the water out of the three-story-high engine room. Grasping for a crude solution, Peterschmidt suggested cutting a hole lower down--in the side of the ship just above the waterline. No commander relishes punching a hole in a wounded ship, and slicing steel was dangerous. With fuel thick on the surface of the water in the engine room, the risk of fire from a stray spark was grave. Reluctantly, Lippold agreed to cut the hole. The alternative, said Peterschmidt, was to "lose the ship."

An enlisted man cut the hole; the ship did not burn; the pumps were able to get ahead of the flooding. Still, the Cole's weary crew was reaching the end of limits of endurance. The wailing Islamic prayer, blaring from the shore three times a day, "spooked us," said Peterschmidt. The harbor, which once seemed like any other, now appeared alien and dangerous, lurking with unseen enemies. At the behest of the American Embassy, local hotels had prepared hot meals for the crew--but the wary sailors refused to eat anything prepared by the locals. Navy SEALs, flown in to prevent further terrorist attacks, did not lift spirits by spinning out grim threat scenarios. Food sent over by other American warships spoiled in the heat. At least 70 crew members had diarrhea. There was only one working toilet.

That morning of the fourth day, Commander Courtney called together her engineers. "Why can't we just leave?" asked one. Others wanted to know: why couldn't the crew just fly out of Yemen? Courtney chose her words carefully. "If we leave, it would be an insult to those who died," she said. The men looked at each other. "OK," said one. "We stay." On the flight deck, Peterschmidt gave the crew a pep talk. "I said, 'Don't give up the ship.' I can't believe I actually said that," he recalled with a laugh.

At his desk--a large rubber tube shaded by the Harpoon missile launchers on the deck--Lippold was worrying about a delicate problem: how to get the dead bodies off the ship without further demoralizing the crew. Should the corpses be quietly carried off in body bags? He turned for advice to Lt. Cmdr. John Kennedy, a psychiatrist who had been flown in that night from a naval hospital in Italy. Kennedy had a different approach. He suggested elaborate ceremony: formal burials at sea to restore the pride of the men. Sailors were reluctant to sleep down below near the carnage. Kennedy suggested that officers lead tours of the blast area so they could "repossess the ship." It was all a little touchy-feely for men. Yet the group therapy seemed to work. So did the simple act of cleaning up the Cole. Painstakingly searching for evidence, the FBI agents were loath to disturb what they saw as a crime scene. An early inspection by the ship's master-at-arms had turned up a propeller from the small motor boat used by the attackers, and a further grim memento: their teeth.

At night as he lay on deck, Peterschmidt was heartened by the sight of the ship's flag, its soot-covered battle ensign, still flying. On Oct. 22, 10 days after the bombing--and after the last dead sailor had been taken off the ship--the crew lowered the flag and ran up a new one. A week later, as the ship prepared to sail out of Aden under tow, Captain Lippold ordered a medley of patriotic songs to be played as the crew stood at attention. First came the "Star Spangled Banner." Then, to Lippold's surprise, a rap song entitled "American Badass" by Kid Rock blared out of the loudspeakers. The captain angrily turned to Peterschmidt. "I got that look that said, 'XO, fix it'," recalled Peterschmidt. The executive officer ran off to yell at the crew to stop the music. But then he stopped, and let the song of defiance play on.