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The heroes of the Cole

The History Channel looks at fast-thinking sailors who mitigated a tragedy on a destroyer.

October 08, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Midway through "The Cole Conspiracy," a superb History Channel documentary that airs Sunday, a Navy officer explains the quick reaction of his sailors in the first minutes after the deadly attack on the U.S. guided missile destroyer Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 2000.

Suicide bombers in a speedboat had blown a 40- by 60-foot hole in the port side of the ship, which had been refueling.

Seventeen sailors were killed, the ship's communication system was crippled, and dozens of sailors were trapped below decks amid rising water, arcing wires, darkness and highly flammable fuel oil.

"Our organization was shattered," said Lt. Cmdr. J. Chris Peterschmidt. "The crew self-organized into rescue groups."

With heroic effort, the wounded were rescued and the bodies of the dead recovered. Sailors stood guard on deck in anticipation of follow-up attacks.

On the third night, rushing water threatened to sink the ship. High-tech pumping gear was useless without power. An age-old technique was employed. "Here we're thinking about a modern, 21st century, nearly billion-dollar warship, and we're using buckets," Peterschmidt said.

Along with the harrowing tale of the ship, "The Cole Conspiracy" has other journalistic freight to carry, including a mini-profile of the Al Qaeda-hunting FBI agent John O'Neill and the story of the attempt by the U.S. to track Khalid al-Midhar, a Cole conspirator who, 11 months later, helped fly American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Acclaimed documentarian Carsten Oblaender received cooperation from the Navy and FBI and key former members of the National Security Council. He's made the most of it.

"The Cole Conspiracy" asks an agonizing question: If the U.S. had launched a counterstrike against Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the Cole attack, could it have forestalled the Sept. 11 attacks?

The answer is unknowable. But the documentary makes one point inescapable: Even in an age of super-technology, it is often the grit and determination of individual men and women in uniform that make the difference.

To save the ship, sailors took the risk of cutting a hole in the hull to let water escape, even though a spark could have triggered an explosion. For the sailors of the Cole, inaction was not an option. "We were not gonna let the ship be a trophy sitting there in Aden harbor for Al Qaeda," said Command Master Chief James Parlier, the ship's top enlisted sailor.


'The Cole Conspiracy'

Where: The History Channel

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-PG-VL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for violence and coarse language)

Executive producer Carl Lindahl

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