NORFOLK Family, friends and fellow seamen yesterday welcomed home 33 sailors injured in Thursday’s attack on the USS Cole at the naval station the destroyer and her crew call home.
Stepping slowly out of the back of a mammoth Air Force C-141 medical transport at 5:20 p.m., the 31 men and two women who made the nine-hour trip from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany were greeted with a red carpet, the sounds of “Anchors Aweigh” and a cacophony of applause.
“There are 33 Cole family members coming home today,” Rear Adm. James B. Foley III told the crowd of more than 200 who gathered under a white tent on Chamber’s Field at the Norfolk Naval Base just before the plane landed. “Let’s not forget there are about 300 of our shipmates fighting for their ship,” he said of the crew who remain on board the Cole off the shore of Yemen, where an apparent terrorist blast blew a huge hole in her hull Thursday.
Adorning the base were two huge posters reading “Our Heroes We Join Hands and Hearts to Welcome You Home” as well as red, white and blue banners draped over parts of the air tower and bleachers.
With fellow sailors and the media looking on, relatives carrying American flags, balloons and flowers spilled out onto the tarmac when the plane’s doors opened.
Many of then had been there to watch the Cole and her crew leave port Aug. 7.
The remains of five of the 17 crewman who died or are presumed dead were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., on Saturday.
Of the crew of 330 sailors and officers, 39 were injured in Thursday’s blast. Six remain hospitalized at Landstuhl, Germany, although four of the six had been moved out of intensive care.
Navy officials said privately yesterday that they expect the rest of the Cole’s crew to be back in Norfolk within two months, even if that means coming ahead of the badly damaged destroyer.
The Cole had stopped to refuel in the port of Aden while en route to the Persian Gulf, when authorities believe a rubber boat filled with explosives rammed the ship in what is being labeled a suicidal terrorist mission.
The blast left a gaping 40-by-40 foot hole on her port side.
All the sailors brought back here yesterday were taken to the nearby Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth for further evaluation. Their injuries range from sprains, cuts and bruises to burns and a broken jaw.
Capt. Brady said a memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the naval station, noting that many of the injured sailors should be cleared to leave the hospital in time to attend the ceremony, which President Clinton is expected to attend.
Four of the injured were taken off the plane by stretcher and two sailors were in wheelchairs. Some of those who could walk needed canes to make it off the plane. One man also had an eye patch.
All were greeted by emotional hugs from their relatives. One of the sailors pitched the cane he was using when he saw his toddler running toward him.
Dressed in his summer whites, Seaman Daryl Turner was one of the hundreds who came to watch the homecoming.
“I feel bad even that it happened,” Seaman Turner said. “To see them it makes me feel better.”
Another sailor, Engineman Fire Apprentice Damien Deville, said seeing his fellow sailors come off the plane made him think of how he could face the same fate.
“It makes you think why you enlisted. It puts things in perspective,” Apprentice Deville said, adding that the Cole incident strengthens his desire to serve in the Navy.
Earlier in the day, clergy around the area seemed to be at a loss for words as they tried to explain the unexplainable during their Sunday services.
“When we grieve, don’t we wonder why God has forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” the Rev. Steven E. Frazier said during his sermon at Second Presbyterian Church of Norfolk. “Grief searches for answers but finds no peace.”
Near an entrance to the naval base, Mr. Frazier’s church is home to many Navy families, all of whom are looking for answers.
As part of his sermon, Mr. Frazier spoke of a local 19-year-old sailor who was killed in the blast as an example, too, of how lives could change and disappear in an instant.
“Follow one person’s death and just see how far it reaches,” Mr. Frazier said as he spoke of Seaman James “Little Mac” McDaniels.
“The first wave of grief hits Little Mac’s parents and sisters and his pregnant fiancee, Novella, and their unborn son who will never know his father,” Mr. Frazier said.
“The circle of grief touches all the kids who ever knew James from school.”
At First Lutheran Church on Colley Avenue, Chaplain Frank Hayes, a 23-year Navy chaplain, said the whole community is mourning the Cole’s loss, a message he planned to share during his homily.
Holding a sheet of paper with names of persons to be prayed for, Chaplain Hayes pointed to the bottom half.
“I think this says something about the impact,” he said, showing the multitude of prayers offered for the Cole’s crew, its family and peace.
Chaplain Hayes, who was at the church for just the one service as an interim pastor, said the city hasn’t faced this kind of tragic turn of events in a long while but will come through nonetheless.
“They see [the Navy] as their children,” he said. “The Navy and the retirees that live here are woven into the fabric of [the community].”
Instead of wearing the standard green vestments of the Catholic Church, the Rev. Joseph H. Metzger III of Blessed Sacrament Church chose white yesterday.
“I wear white as a visual reminder to all of us [that] we are called … to a commitment of peace,” Father Metzger said.
The tone of many services was in fact on reflection and peace as Father Metzger and others talked of how Americans should take this incident as a reminder not to take living in the United States for granted.
“It shocked our city, it shocked our state, it shocked our country,” Father Metzger said. “The men and women of the Cole did not know what was coming.”