A Navy destroyer’s refueling stop in a little-known country on the tip of the Arabian peninsula 20 years ago today led to a deadly attack by the Sunni Jihadi group al-Qaeda. It was the escalation of their war on the U.S., which wasn’t fully prepared for what Osama bin Laden had in mind.
The 40-by-60-foot hole created by the explosion left all able-bodied sailors battling fires and flooding for 96 hours just to stay afloat. Seventeen sailors were killed, and another 37 injured by the blast.
“We were standing there speaking one moment, and then the next moment we were on the deck on the other side of the shop and it was dark, the room was starting to fill up with smoke and we couldn’t breathe so well,” said Senior Chief Damage Controlman William Merchen in a Navy press release. He was one of several crew members quoted in the release.
Then a petty officer third class, Merchen is now nearing retirement. And almost two decades after the explosion that changed his life, he has returned to Cole to teach a new generation of sailors how to react to casualties and damage aboard their ship. Ceremonies will be held today to honor the fallen in Norfolk, Virginia, the ship’s homeport and Washington D.C.
“It has shaped everything that I’ve done at every command I’ve been to,” said Merchen. “There hasn’t been a single one of those trainings or drills that I haven’t thought about the attack on Cole.”
Abdel Rahim al-Nashiri and Jamal Mohammed al-Bedawi, the two Al-Qaeda suspects convicted for the bombing, were sentenced to death September 29, 2004 by a Yemeni court. Four other suspects were given ten years in prison.
On the morning of the explosion, Merchen and two other sailors had been returning equipment to a tool shop after performing routine maintenance. The paint cans and light bulbs stored in the shop were thrown around the room just as violently as Merchen and his shipmates had been, leaving shards of glass and paint spilled across the floor of the now smoke-filled room.
A small fiberglass boat loaded with C4 explosives and operated by two al-Qaeda extremists had approached the ship and detonated at 11:18 a.m. along its port side.
The three sailors rushed to don self-contained breathing apparatuses from the damage control deck, and once their oxygen was flowing, they began hearing the voices of injured sailors in the chief’s mess.
“The things they were saying were beyond just ‘I’m trapped’ and ‘get me out of here,’” Merchen said. “People were describing how they were injured. We knew we had to get in there as quickly as possible, but that wasn’t going to be as easy as opening the door.”
In efforts similar to those being undertaken across the ship to save trapped and wounded sailors, Merchen and his two shipmates began clearing a way through the wreckage to those crying out for help.
For his bravery on Oct. 12, 2000 and in the days that followed, Merchen was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.
“His decisive and courageous actions were instrumental in saving dozens of crewmembers, containing the flooding and preventing the ship from sinking. Petty Officer Merchen’s courage, personal initiative, and complete dedication to duty reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service,” the text of the award reads.
Now assigned to the Afloat Training Group Atlantic as a damage control mission readiness inspector, Merchen’s personal experience is an invaluable asset.
“Senior Chief Merchen — he’s a professional,” said Cmdr. Edward J. Pledger, currently the commanding officer of Cole. “I often talk about Cole heroes, and the honor of being able to meet any of them. He’s a Cole hero and having him on our ship and training us — it’s very special to have that opportunity.”
In his current position, Merchen ensures that Cole sailors will be prepared to respond to any attack or incident that may occur.
“When he speaks, our Sailors listen, because they know this isn’t somebody who just has been teaching it from a book,” said Pledger. “This is somebody who has done it in real life and understands that if you don’t do it right, people could die or you could lose your ship.”
Another Cole survivor, Master Chief Fire Controlman (Aegis) Craig Cotherman, believes the type of damage control training Merchen provides today was the very reason the ship stayed afloat.
“Despite tragedy, despite chaos, Sailors will fall back on what they have been trained to do,” Cotherman said.
Cotherman was working one level above the galley where sailors were lining up for lunch when the explosion went off.
“The lights went out. The battle lanterns came on. A good majority of the people that were in the space with me thought that we had a problem with refueling because we were refueling on the starboard side,” he recalled.
With many key leaders in the chief’s mess injured, missing, or killed, Cotherman took charge, sending sailors to different areas of the ship to do battle damage assessments and assist in rescue efforts.
Cotherman left Cole in 2004 but makes an effort to visit the ship and its memorial every time he’s back in Norfolk.
For Merchen, being on board the same ship he fought to save many years ago is a chance to remember.
“As I go through the spaces, I do think about what they looked like after the attack. I do think about where I know certain people passed away or where they were injured. It’s good to remember that stuff. It does a service to those people that were injured and honors the people that were killed,” he said.
On 11:18 a.m. Oct. 12, the same time as the attack occurred two decades earlier, sailors from across the Navy will pause for a moment of silence to honor those who died and those who worked to save Cole in the aftermath. The moment of remembrance was requested by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday in a fleetwide message Oct. 5.
“The example set by the Cole Sailors is clear: a well-trained crew, even after a devastating blow, can rise to the occasion and save their ship,” Gilday’s message read. “The 17 Sailors who gave their lives that day are, no doubt, heroes. When their country called, they answered. And, for that, we are eternally grateful.”
A ceremony and wreath dedication will take place in Norfolk on Oct. 12 as well as a memorial ceremony in Washington D.C.
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.