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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

At Home, Prayers and Tears for Loved Ones

Reaction: Relatives cling to hope for sailors still missing and mourn those who died. Scant information about the wounded is a cause for worry.

October 14, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN and MELISSA LAMBERT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The chaplains had come and gone, their solemn messages delivered, leaving relatives of the Cole's casualties to agonize over lives shortened and to pray for those whose fates were uncertain.

On Friday, the day after the U.S. guided missile destroyer was apparently targeted by a terrorist bombing that killed seven sailors and left 10 others presumed dead in the Yemeni port of Aden, Etta Parlett sat in her Churchville, Md., home, steadying her voice so she could talk about her missing son in the present tense.

In Austin, Tex., Michelle Poston fought off exhaustion, staring at a television screen all afternoon in the hope she might see the face of her wounded daughter.

And in Norfolk, where the Navy had planned a jubilant ceremony for the unveiling of a statue honoring returning sailors, families instead clung to one another in privacy, mourning husbands and children who would never have another homecoming.

Seventeen sailors were on the list--two women, 15 men--some of them barely out of their teens. Several had Navy fathers. Some dreamed of college. Others just hoped that time in the Navy would help them figure out what to do with their lives.

There was Electronics Warfare Technician Kevin Shawn Rux, now missing, a North Dakota boy who spent 10 years in the Navy, then left briefly to become a policeman before reenlisting last summer. There was Ensign Andrew Triplett, killed, a Mississippi native who left behind a young wife and children in Detroit. There was Mess Management Specialist Ronchester Mananga Santiago, missing, who planned to muster out in December and go on to college.

Shock and grief were visible in the crowded driveways of homes where friends came calling, evident in scores of tied-up phone lines as relatives reached out to one another.

Compounding their sense of loss was how little they knew. Information came in scraps. Even as relatives pressed to learn more, events outpaced them.

Those who could bear to watch television saw five flag-draped coffins borne slowly out of the cargo hold of a military aircraft sitting on a runway in Germany. In towns like Churchville, families still awaiting definitive word from the Middle East saw young sailors standing at attention--and couldn't help thinking about their own.

"All the Navy keeps telling us is the few facts they know," said Parlett, whose son, Joshua, was still officially missing at the end of the day Friday.

A Navy chaplain and two officers had come to her door at 10:45 the night before. She knew instantly why they were there. Her husband, Leroy, had heard about the explosion Thursday morning on the radio.

The couple let the officers in, then sat, silent, in their living room as the officers told them what little they knew. Forty-five minutes later, they were gone.

Joshua Parlett, 19, a high school graduate who had joined the Navy a year ago to figure out his future, couldn't be found in the hours after the explosion shattered the Cole's armored hull.

A night of prayer bucked up Etta Parlett. Prayer was all she had left. Even when a Navy man called the next morning at 8 to tell them there was nothing new, she refused to take their helplessness as a bad sign.

"If you're asking if I think he's still alive, oh yes, sir," she said, "I still believe they can find him."

Poston at least had the certainty that her daughter, Kesha, was alive. But even by late Friday, she and her husband, Marc, were unsure of how severe her injuries were.

They were among the few American families with photographic evidence that their children were alive after the bombing. But they were still on edge. Poston had gone all night without sleep in her Austin home.

On Thursday, Kesha had sent an e-mail message to her mother and stepfather. It arrived just hours after a Navy official left a message on their answering machine that Kesha was one of the 35 wounded aboard the Cole.

The e-mail read: "I'm still alive. Are you still alive?" Michelle Poston was euphoric until she realized that her daughter had sent it several hours before the explosion.

By Thursday night, they had their first real evidence that their daughter was at least alive--a fuzzy photo taken off a Yemeni videotape that showed Kesha on a hospital bed.

By Friday, a church group and several friends had already offered to pay Michelle Poston's way to Germany. A friend of Marc Poston's had offered to pay for plastic surgery if Kesha needed it. But still, not knowing left Michelle Poston trembling and sobbing. "I've been walking in circles," Poston said. "That's about all I'm good for."

In Norfolk, where the Cole is normally based, more than 100 family members shuttled all day Friday in and out of a cordoned-off building that Navy officials had converted into a waiting area. While social workers and chaplains provided counseling, Adm. Robert J. Natter, the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, walked out to a lawn just outside the base and announced the names of the Cole's dead and missing.

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