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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Death Toll From Blast Probably 17, Pentagon Says

Aftermath: As dead and injured are airlifted from Yemen, search continues for missing sailors. Efforts are complicated by the way the explosion mangled the ship.

October 14, 2000|PAUL RICHTER and DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ADEN, Yemen — Pentagon officials predicted Friday that the death toll from the apparent bombing of the guided-missile destroyer Cole would rise to 17, as Navy rescue workers continued a grisly search for 10 missing sailors through twisted and flooded compartments of the disabled warship.

Evacuation teams began airlifting the dead and 33 injured from this Arabian Peninsula port. Authorities said they were not likely to find any of the missing sailors alive and expected to soon raise the official death count that stood Friday at seven. They said the task of finding the remains had been complicated by the way a suspected terrorist bomb, apparently detonated from a small boat, had flattened a deck with a mess area against a deck above it.

"This is a very damaged ship," said Rear Adm. Joseph Henry of the Navy's bureau of personnel.

About 100 U.S. investigators and security personnel had arrived in Yemen to begin probing the attack, which occurred Thursday when a small vessel that appeared to be a work boat nosed against the Cole and set off a huge explosion. It blew a jagged hole 30 feet high and 40 feet wide in the Cole's midsection, flooding engine rooms, auxiliary engineering compartments, sleeping quarters and mess space.

While Navy officials insisted there was no way the attack could have been prevented, Pentagon authorities said they intend to conduct a full review of security procedures used during the Cole's refueling stop in Aden.

Among other issues, they will examine the way the Navy hires local companies for refueling and other services, said Kenneth H. Bacon, the chief Pentagon spokesman. Harbor work boats were helping the Cole moor at a refueling barge when the blast occurred.

Bacon said officials were continuing to classify the incident as an "apparent terrorist attack," since their official investigation was only beginning. But he acknowledged that much of the evidence suggests the work of terrorists, and several senior officials already had said they strongly believe there could be no other explanation.

Defense officials also strongly defended the U.S. decision to resume Navy port visits to Yemen 15 months ago. They said it was unclear whether the U.S. military will resume port calls once the current tensions subside.

Yemen is a poor and unstable country reputed to harbor terrorist cells, and some observers have questioned whether it was wise to resume Navy port calls here in the interest of improving relations.

Navy officials painted a grim picture of the situation aboard the disabled destroyer.

The blast flooded an area that extended the full width of the ship, officials said. Within that zone, some compartments were fully flooded and others partly flooded, with air pockets.

Decks and hatches were crushed or bent out of shape, making movement through the area difficult in some places and impossible in others. The $1-billion destroyer was outfitted with some equipment helpful in the repair and rescue work, including hydraulic jacks, officials said.

But the ship lacks other equipment, such as the "jaws of life" hydraulic tools also used to remove trapped passengers from crushed motor vehicles. Since the blast detonated inward through the ship's half-inch steel exterior, authorities did not believe that any of the dead were washed out to sea.

Though some sailors were in the mess area when the blast occurred, much of the crew was on deck and at workstations elsewhere. Navy officials said the casualty count could have been much worse if the explosion had taken place when more sailors were eating or sleeping, or if it had struck compartments holding the ship's inventory of Tomahawk missiles or other munitions.

"This could have been a far different story," said Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman.

After contacting relatives, the Navy released the names of the seven dead and 10 missing.

All but one were enlisted sailors. Two were female; their deaths would mark the first time female sailors have been killed by hostile action aboard a combat ship.

The bodies of the seven dead were flown to Ramstein, Germany, in flag-draped coffins. They were to be returned to the United States today. On Wednesday, a memorial service will be held in Norfolk, Va., the Cole's home port, with President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen scheduled to attend.

Clinton spoke by telephone with Cmdr. Kirk Lippold of the Cole to express "his condolences and those of the American people on the loss of the crew," said P. J. Crowley, National Security Council spokesman at the White House.

Five sailors who suffered minor injuries returned to duty.

Though the Cole is considered a high-tech marvel, the blast cut off much of its communication capability, and for much of Friday sailors were unable to reach their families in the United States. Late in the day, arrangements were made to bring in mobile phones for the crew's use, officials said.

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