- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

NORFOLK The USS Cole returned to its home port yesterday, a stronger, better ship than when a terrorists' bomb ripped it open and killed 17 of its sailors a year and a half ago in Yemen.

The destroyer underwent $250 million of repairs over 14 months at Northop Grumman's Ingalls shipyard. It left the Pascagoula, Miss., yard last week and docked at Norfolk Naval Station around 10 a.m.

A steady rain fell from gray skies as several hundred people waited under tents in a parking lot at the base. As the ship came into view, people began waving American flags and snapping pictures.

Ronald W. Francis drove five hours from his home in North Carolina to honor the memory of his daughter, Lakeina Monique Francis, 19, a mess management specialist who died in the bombing.

"My daughter is part of the ship. I want to visualize what she was doing on the ship," Mr. Francis said.

John Clodfelter of Mechanicsville, Va., father of slain hull technician Kenneth Clodfelter, 21, went to Mississippi to see the ship depart and drove to Norfolk to see it dock.

"It's important that the Cole comes back. I want very much to let those people know that did this that they haven't gotten away with it," said Mr. Clodfelter, fighting tears.

"The Cole never had a homecoming because of what happened. Kenneth should have been on there today."

The Navy invited more than 600 service members, former Cole sailors and relatives of the slain sailors to the private homecoming to welcome the ship and its crew of 300, including 40 who survived the attack.

The family members will be given a private tour of the ship. They will see a ship that has been upgraded with two new 27-ton main engines, more than 350,000 feet of electrical cable, 550 tons of new steel and improved security.

The Cole also now bears a plaque in memory of those who were killed, and 17 stars have been placed on the floor of the main passageway that runs down the length of the ship.

"They call it the Hall of Heroes," said Petty Officer Paul Taylor, a Navy spokesman.

Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network has been blamed by U.S. officials for both the September 11 attacks and the Cole blast, carried out by terrorists who pulled an explosives-laden skiff alongside the destroyer as it refueled on Oct. 12, 2000.

Sharon Priepke, whose son, Engineman 2nd Class Marc Ian Nieto, died in the blast, will come to Norfolk in late June to escort his ashes to the destroyer so they can be scattered at sea. The Eldorado, Wis., woman couldn't be there yesterday for the homecoming, except in spirit.

"We're all very proud of the USS Cole and so happy to see it coming back," Mrs. Priepke said of the Cole sailors' family members. "It shows the world you might try to fight us, but you're not going to get the best of us."

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