“We heard a loud explosion and it felt to us like the ship lifted and it immediately settled back down into the water,” Master Chief Fire Controlman (Aegis) Craig Cotherman reflected on the bombing of guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) in the port of Aden, Yemen, the morning of Oct. 12, 2000.
Cotherman, a veteran of the Cole attack, will commemorate its 20th anniversary while deployed again to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, this time as acting Command Master Chief of guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58).
“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,” remembered Cotherman, then a petty officer first class.
He was working in combat systems maintenance central, located on the port side of the ship, one deck above the galley where his shipmates were lining up for lunch when the bomb exploded.
“It’s amazing to me how clear that memory is,” said Cotherman.
He recalled going outside to the weather deck with a shipmate to find Chief Gunner’s Mate Norman Larson on the bridge wing with an M-14 rifle, yelling at them to “get back inside the skin of the ship!”
Immediately following the blast, crew members rushed to rescue severely injured and trapped shipmates. Despite uncertainties of what may come next, Cole’s crew withstood 96 hours of sustained damage control efforts, preventing further flooding and damage.
He attributed their ability to keep the ship afloat to the crew’s damage control training.
“Despite tragedy, despite chaos, Sailors will fall back on what they have been trained to do,” said Cotherman.
The attack created a 40-by-60-foot hole that tore into the ship’s hull. This caused a ruptured sea water pipe in the forward power conversion room, a space which distributes electrical power throughout the front half of the ship.
“We didn’t have any power forward,” said Cotherman. “Our power configuration was very limited to what we could do so we had to rig casualty power cables from the stern of the ship.”
On the day of the bombing many of the chief petty officers were injured, resulting in a loss of highly experienced personnel on the ship and guidance to junior Sailors.
“The person that I probably knew best was Electronics Technician Chief Petty Officer Richard Costelow,” said Cotherman.
Costelow was in the Chief’s Mess during the time of the bombing and was severely injured in the blast. After being taken to a safer area, shipmates tried to resuscitate him several times, but he succumbed to his wounds.
In total, 17 Sailors lost their lives and 39 others were injured.
“We took a hit in our leadership, which was the Chief’s Mess, and some of us had to take charge,” said Cotherman, who essentially assumed the duties as Combat System Officer of the Watch and sent Sailors out to various spaces on the ship.
He and his team started doing battle damage assessments around the ship.
“We communicated with controlling stations and figured out what people needed. They had to assess what they had, did not have and what they needed,” said Cotherman.
Since the ship’s galley took the biggest hit, in the first few days after the bombing, Sailors did not have hot meals.
“We had to raid the ship’s store,” said Cotherman.
The Cole remained moored in the port of Aden for three weeks following the bombing.
Due to power outages on the ship, a satellite phone was set up for Cole Sailors to contact their families.
“We were afforded a three-minute telephone call,” said Cotherman. “It was to inform our friends and family that we were alive and to not worry about us. My wife actually utilized the call-waiting feature and called my parents. So, I was able to talk to my wife and parents at the same time in that three-minute phone call. Priceless, in my opinion. I would have paid anything.”
After three weeks, Cole was towed away from Aden by the Military Sealift Command ocean-going tug USNS Catawba (T-ATF 168), then transported back to the U.S. aboard the heavy transport ship M/V Blue Marlin.
Cole Sailors flew directly to Naval Station Norfolk.
‘It was a glorious homecoming with all of our friends and family waiting for us,” said Cotherman. “At the time it was a joyous occasion, but it was hard knowing the circumstance of everything.”
Cotherman left Cole in 2004 but has taken several assignments to commands at Naval Station Norfolk, where the ship is homeported, and where the memorial of the attack was dedicated in 2001.
He said he always tries to visit the ship and the USS Cole Memorial when he is in Norfolk.
“It’s always emotional to visit the Memorial. I saw it when it was first laid, now those little sapling trees are all grown,” said Cotherman. “It’s so much more rewarding for me, every time I go.”
Thinking of his Cole shipmates who were killed or injured, Cotherman said, “I knew each one of them in a different way, but they all make an impact in my life”.
Now deployed aboard Philippine Sea operating in the same area of the world as the attack 20 year ago, Cotherman reflects.
“It’s a bittersweet moment for me. My wife is going to attend the ceremony in Norfolk, Va. in my stead, which is some comfort. If I have to miss the reunion there’s no other place that I’d rather be than here in 5th Fleet doing my job.”
This month, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday sent a message to the fleet asking for a moment of silence on Oct. 12, at 11:18 a.m., to honor the fallen and the heroes who saved their ship after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole 20 years ago.
“As a Navy, it is important, and I am directing that we observe a moment of silence at 11:18 a.m., (local) that day to recognize the 20th anniversary of this attack. We will pause to remember those who were tragically lost, pay tribute to the heroic actions of the crew, and reflect on our responsibility to carry their proud legacy forward,” said Gilday.
Gilday also noted it is important to honor, remember the sacrifices and ensure that the USS Cole Sailors affected by the bombing are never forgotten.
“It changed me forever,” said Cotherman.
For more information on the 20th USS Cole commemoration, please visit: https://www.surflant.usff.navy.mil/remember67/