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For the Onshore Crew, 'What Ifs' Amid the Grief

Military: At the memorial service for victims, colleagues who were in the ship's home port at the time of the blast ponder the quirks of fate.

October 19, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Va. — A bosun's whistle keened, and 4,000 sailors snapped to attention. They were everywhere in the morning fog--lined on the soaring deck of the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, huddled in the gun mounts of the destroyer Ross, crowded into hundreds of seats on Pier 12, all in their proper places on a gray day of mourning for Navy dead.

Anonymous in the sea of uniforms were a handful of sailors who had as much right as anyone to be here--yet who were somehow out of place.

Jesse Abrams was one of them. He had come in his starched dress whites too, and the price of his admission to the memorial service was the navy blue patch on his shoulder: "USS Cole."

Abrams was one of a group of Cole crew members who happened to be in home port in Norfolk last week when the midship decks of the 8,600-ton guided missile destroyer were shredded by a bomb. On Wednesday, as the somber strains of the Navy hymn echoed over the pier, Abrams and the Cole's other fortunate few sat pondering quirks of fate and timing that had kept them home--and alive--while close friends died.

Abrams is a cook on the Cole, a 15-year veteran whose assignment has dealt him a few scalds and burns but never thrust him in harm's way. But just before the late-morning mess last Thursday, explosives detonated inside a boat that had pulled alongside the Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden--and turned the ship's galley into a tomb. The kitchen area was blown apart, killing two cooks. One was Ronchester Mananga Santiago, an easygoing Texan who was Abrams' co-worker and close friend--and at whose side he would have been working had he not been on medical leave.

"I keep thinking about how easily it could have been me," Abrams said. He laced and unlaced his fingers nervously. Finally, his wife, Terry, slipped her hands into his and held tight. "I keep wondering what he was doing when it hit," he said.

Abrams had known Santiago eight months. He had schooled him in the fine points of cooking for a crew of 300.

"He was a good guy to work with," Abrams said. Every morning, nearly 100 Cole sailors crowded into line for each mess. They did not like to be kept waiting.

On the day the bomb hit, several dozen had headed for the mess area to beat the morning rush. A few minutes more "and it would have been terrible," Abrams said.

But he was home, airlifted out three months ago. When he heard about the bombing, Abrams said, "I was devastated. I know the places [Santiago] would probably be at that exact moment. And I can see myself right there with him."

Around Abrams were other sailors with Cole patches. Some were recently retired, some transferred to new assignments, some on leave.

Kathy Spearenberg was there for her husband, Jeff, a Cole senior engineer who had been on home leave when the bomb hit but who flew out to Aden last weekend to rejoin the ship and help prevent its sinking. "We both know how fortunate we are," she said, lips quivering.

Milton Boynes retired from the Navy just two weeks ago, plucked from the Cole in the middle of the Adriatic Sea--before the ship slipped through the Suez Canal and made its lethal stop in Aden.

He sat wondering why his orders came through at that moment; he left behind his protege, Timothy Lamont Saunders, an Aegis missile system specialist who died in the blast.

"If they had kept me two more weeks, I would've probably been there with him," Boynes said. "Instead, I'm here, he's gone."

At the edge of the pier, two white Navy buses rumbled into view. The doors flapped open and a line of men and women stepped out. They were the Cole's injured survivors.

The first few walked out easily. Several men followed, limping with defiant strides. Then came those steadying themselves on healthy sailors' shoulders. And then three gurneys with men who had been airlifted from Germany the night before.

A thunderclap of applause greeted them. And deep among the rows of dress whites, Abrams and Boynes clapped too.

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