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Sailor Recalls Chaotic Darkness After Explosion Rocked the Cole

Military: Disoriented and bleeding, the Ohio enlistee called on his emergency training to make his way toward medical help.

October 17, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — There is a hole in Andrew Nemeth's memory, a blank space that contains the exact moment when the Cole's mess hall convulsed in explosion and friends died in darkness.

There is much that the 19-year-old seaman apprentice will never forget: the strange sensation of floating in midair for an instant, the shock of being thrown against the destroyer's ceiling, the pall of smoke in his eyes, the discovery that the deck beneath his feet was wet with his own blood.

But as he described last week's attack in Yemen that left 17 U.S. sailors dead, Nemeth was still clueless Monday about how he had been left with a constellation of welts and cuts that stretched from his ragged hairline to his cheeks.

"I can't really remember the sound," he said during a series of interviews at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center near the Norfolk shipyards. "I just remember floating."

In describing the chaotic moments after a bomb shredded the guided missile destroyer's heavily plated hull, Nemeth--like other Cole survivors--seemed to believe that the attackers had relied on "information from the inside."

That's because the suicide bombing--launched from a small boat that had pulled alongside the warship in the Yemeni port of Aden and apparently was mistaken for a friendly vessel--targeted the Cole's mess decks just as the lunch hour approached.

"They hit us perfectly, right in the middle of the chiefs' mess," Nemeth said. But in another 10 minutes, "there would have been a lot more people in line."

The 8,600-ton destroyer had been bristling with extra armed-guard details on its quarterdecks and had tightened security after it passed through the Suez Canal more than a week ago on its way to the Persian Gulf, Nemeth said. But even the Cole's accelerated refueling in Aden on Thursday--a laborious six-hour procedure pared down to four hours--didn't betray any heightened concerns by the ship's officers that the destroyer was at risk.

"There was nervousness about the Gulf," Nemeth said, given the disintegrating political climate in the Middle East. But no specific warnings about the stop in Aden were communicated to the crew. "We were told it was going to be normal."

Nemeth, who is called "Junior" by his parents in rural Ohio, was one of 20 Cole sailors with minor injuries who were allowed to leave the hospital Monday. Thirteen with more severe injuries--from broken ribs and limbs to collapsed lungs and perforated eardrums--were being kept for further treatment, but at least 10 of them were expected to be released to relatives today, said Capt. Martin Snyder, head of surgery at the hospital.

Four sailors who suffered broken bones were to be flown to Norfolk today from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Two unnamed Cole crew members who had undergone counseling for emotional trauma were among those who left Portsmouth Naval Medical Center on Monday. They had witnessed the explosion and were "very proximate to the deaths" of crew mates, said Lt. Cmdr. Edward D. Simmer, a psychiatrist who heads the hospital's special psychiatric rapid intervention team--a group of counselors who debriefed the bombing victims.

"They've drawn together pretty nicely," Simmer said. "There's a lot of strength in this group. There's clearly also some anger and emotion they have to work out."

Nemeth--who enlisted at 17, just after his high school graduation--displayed a military man's understatement as he described his own lingering anger and fears.

"Yeah, there's a little bit of hate," he said, "a little bit of anger [toward the attackers] because it was such a cowardly act."

He hadn't seen it coming.

The refueling stop was nearly as routine as any other--except for the pressing need to proceed quickly. There were no alerts specific to Yemen, but all Nemeth had to do was check his e-mail on ship computers to know how tightly wired the Mideast had become in recent weeks.

Still, even as the small boat approached the Cole, Nemeth went about his work as a technician in the turbine engine room with no sense of dread. He visited a friend who had started work on the refueling, then returned to his work area. Grabbing a broom, he swept up and then checked for fuel line leaks--a precaution designed to prevent accidental explosions.

It wasn't altogether unusual, Nemeth said, for foreigners to approach a Navy ship as closely as the bomb-laden craft did. In a French port on an earlier trip, Nemeth said, "people would come up that close and wave. We usually trust people."

He had left the engine room and made his way to the mess deck at 11 a.m., getting there early enough to beat the mad rush for the start of the 11:15 meal.

The mess area was starting to fill up but wasn't yet crowded.

Nemeth picked up a tray, made his way into line and started for the food when "the next thing I knew, I was in the air and I hit the ceiling."

He heard no sound, felt no pain. There was only the sense of being flung upward, then a disorienting 10-minute odyssey through the darkness.

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