Ten years after the attack on the Cole

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Ten years ago today, two al-Qaeda militants steered a small boat alongside the USS Cole. The American naval destroyer was refueling in the port of Aden, in Yemen. The two militants detonated a bomb that tore through the ship's hull. 17 US sailors were killed. Dozens more were seriously wounded. For three days following the attack, surviving crewmembers fought to free their shipmates from the wreckage and to keep the ship from sinking. Reporter Jordana Gustafson has their stories.

JORDANA GUSTAFSON: Executive officer, Chris Peterschmidt, had to get his wits about him fast. Peterschmidt was second-in-command on the Cole. And he had urgent and competing concerns.

CHRIS PETERSCHMIDT: We had to cut power to those cables. We had to get firefighting foam onto those puddles of gasoline. We had to make sure that all the hatches and temporary bulkheads that we could create were stopping the flooding from progressing into the rest of the ship.

GUSTAFSON: Peterschmidt ordered crewmembers near him to break out their weapons and set up a security detail on the main deck. For the next 90 minutes, sailors worked to find, extricate, and triage 39 of their most critically wounded shipmates.

PETERSCHMIDT: And then once the wounded were taken to a medical facility, the marathon started. And that was really trying to stop the spread of damage.

GUSTAFSON: They had to stop the spread of damage that threatened to sink the ship.

PETERSCHMIDT: Fighting that damage became, for us, fighting those unseen terrorists who had caused the situation we were in. For us, our battlefront was stopping that water from coming in. And we would go to the maximum length possible not to give up that fight.

GUSTAFSON: Below deck, temperatures reached 130 degrees. Food and water were in short supply. Sleep was scarce, and hygiene was poor. And the specter of their dead comrades still mangled in the wreckage, hung above them.

PETERSCHMIDT: By that third night, the crew was really starting to get to a point of just extreme fatigue.

GUSTAFSON: But their efforts were paying off. Engineers got one of the generators to work, and they were successfully pumping water out of flooded spaces. Peterschmidt and Captain Kirk Lippold ordered some of the crew to sleep. Chris Regal was hull technician, second class. He sat down on the flight deck.

CHRIS REGAL: Just trying to relax and take a break and just gather my thoughts. And then that's when it happened.

OVERTURF: Then the call comes out.

GUSTAFSON: Lieutenant J.G. Robert Overturf.

OVERTURF: Flooding, flooding, flooding. We've got flooding.

GUSTAFSON: The one surviving generator had stopped working. Power to the ship was cut. Pumps shut down. Water rushed in.

PETERSCHMIDT: And all the progress we had made in the two days beforehand almost all but evaporated. And so we were at that ragged edge of, in our minds, losing the ship.

GUSTAFSON: The Cole's last engine room was filling with water. Peterschmidt ordered a bucket brigade. Crewmembers waded into flooded compartments to find and plug cracks.

PETERSCHMIDT: You literally had to put your hand against the wall that had water on the other side, feel around to find those cracks that were now developing, and then plug them literally in the dark. Knowing if that bulkhead that you had your hands against gave away, you would not have much chance of survival.

GUSTAFSON: But the water kept coming. Chris Peterschmidt used the one cell phone on board to call Commodore Jim Hanna. Hanna was in a hotel room in Aden where he was coordinating the US military's rescue response.

PETERSCHMIDT: So I was trying to articulate and describe our situation. And he had asked me point blank, are you losing the ship. And I, and to say the words, you know, for the first time that, yes, that we're at risk of losing the ship in a matter of hours.

GUSTAFSON: Senior officials debated ordering the crew off the ship, but Peterschmidt argued against it. To allow the Cole to sink to the bottom of the harbor would be to concede defeat and to fail their missing and wounded shipmates. Instead, they decided to do what, to many, seems unthinkable. On a ship that was sinking because of a hole in its side, they decided to make a second hole, just above the waterline. Robert Overturf.

OVERTURF: Cutting the hole in the side of the ship to pour water out is, no, that is not standard de-watering procedures or damage control procedures.

GUSTAFSON: It was pretty risky. Sparks from Chris Regal's torch could ignite fuel in the water. But it worked. And crews immediately ran the portable pump's hose through the new hole. Regal climbed out of Main Engine Room Two and sat on the deck. An officer handed him something he'll never forget. A cold drink and his first hot meal in three days. Chili Mac in a pouch. Nineteen days after the Cole was attacked, four Yemeni tug boats towed her out of Aden's harbor.

PETERSCHMIDT: I'll always remember that feeling the waves again underneath the ship. Feeling the ship rock as it left the harbor. For a ship that was so close to physical death, it seemed now to be walking again and moving and doing those things that we became proud of.

GUSTAFSON: As the Cole left the harbor, patriotic music blared from the loudspeakers. Captain's orders.

PETERSCHMIDT: And then a song came on that was not in the program. I think a member of our crew had slipped this song in.

GUSTAFSON: It was �American Badass� by Kid Rock. Most of the song had played before Chris Peterschmidt could turn it off.

PETERSCHMIDT: But I could tell that song of defiance, of defeating what we thought were the terrorist goals, really resonated with the crew. And I could see it in their faces that this song represented best what they had experienced, and their fighting spirit.

GUSTAFSON: The Cole was ultimately placed onto a heavy-lift ship and transported to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where she was restored to full working order and redeployed in 2003. For The World, I'm Jordana Gustafson.

MULLINS: Jordana Gustafson is from PRI's America Abroad. This story is part of a radio documentary, �Remembering the Cole.�