a powerful explosion ripped a hole in the USS Cole, chief engineer Deborah
Courtney relied on her training to help save the ship.
It was a
routine refueling stop for the USS Cole, a $1 billion high-tech Arleigh
Burke-class warship. The place: An offshore pier in the dusty port of
Aden on the south coast of Yemen. Destination: the Persian Gulf for a
routine Naval patrol duty. It was 100 degrees outside.
11:18 a.m. on October 12, 2000, with no warning, all hell broke loose
aboard the 500-foot, 8,300-ton ship. The crew was getting ready for
a fajita lunch in the galley. Then the ship rocked. It rumbled. A massive
explosion tore a 40-by-40 foot gash in the port side of the ship. In
the end, 17 of the 294 crew members were killed and 42 were wounded.
Two men on a suicide mission drove their tiny white boat strapped with
explosives into the USS Cole. But the horror caused by the terrorist
bombing, linked to terrorist guru Osama Bin Laden, was a four-day hell
for the survivors aboard fighting to keep their ship afloat.
Cmdr. Deborah Courtney, the ship's chief engineer, the collision was
the beginning of a 96-hour nightmare. Chaos ruled. The communications
systems were kaput. Dense smoke suffocated the already blackened passageways.
Water was streaming in through the port-side hole and injured crew members
were screaming in pain.
quickly put into motion a search for the living and what would later
be called an engineering feat to save the ship that was listing at 2
½ degrees. Fuel tanks had blown, and live cables were exposed.
Meanwhile, the ship was still being loaded with 2,000 gallons of fuel
a minute. The fear of fire was alive.
struggled to pump water out as fast as needed, and the Cole had only
one working engine. It was under siege as well. The seal on the engine
compartment was buckling under intense water pressure. The generator
ran out of fuel. The batteries in many of the hand-held lamps were dead,
and food was rotting in the intense heat as the days wore on.
a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was eager to command a war
ship, but she had to bide her time for another four years after graduation
as an Admiral's aide until women were permitted to engage in combat
duty. But the notion of being tossed violently out of a chair in her
stateroom by terrorists' bombs that nearly split the ship in two was
not one she had gambled for in her first run as chief engineering officer.
one prepare for such a catastrophe? And what leadership skills must
rise to the surface to enable one to respond fast and furiously to a
life or death situation? Courtney, oxygen-mask in place, and her team
of engineers scrambled to plunge through the debris in search of the
injured and to shut down circuit breakers to avoid any explosions from
the fuel oil. New cable had to be laid to get the emergency power lines
going again. Courtney responded as trainedsomberly and steadily.
She was thankful that before they had set sail she had purchased 80
maglite flashlights for her crew from her local Home Depot.
control. Fuel-smeared water. Emergency lamps, no portable generators.
It was an engineer's nightmare. But at least they had the flashlights.
was the mantra by that fourth hellish day, it was Don't give up
the ship, she recalls. When her crew asked if they could fly out
of Yemen, she prudently and firmly said. That would be an insult
to those who died. Message delivered.
December of 2000, the Cole was loaded onto a salvage vessel and hitched
a ride back to the United States. The crew did fly home to Norfolk.
And the Navy plans to have the ship back in the water this year after
the repairs have been made in Pascagoula, Miss.
Courtney's first assignments with the Navy after graduation was
as the main propulsion assistant on the USS Gettysburg. To prepare,
she was sent to gas turbine engineering plant operations courses for
practical applications, not theory. And once on board, the chief engineer
spent hours ensuring that she learned what she needed to. But who really
teaches you how to handle a crisis of this magnitude with sparking electrical
cables and wounded crew members in the pit of darkness and mayhem? One
of the things that the Navy does very well is train and practice damage
control, says Courtney. The repetitive training helps to
reinforce what we learn, and the training kicks in automatically in
a crisis. In essence, it's all about training and preparation
for emergencies and keeping a cool head.
education is critical, and for Courtney her background clearly helped
foster her calm, clear-headed approach to the situation. However, she
admits that while she learned all about rigging casualty power at the
Academy, which is a way to provide electricity to equipment that may
have its normal sources of power damaged, neither she or her crew had
ever done it. We rigged it safely, but it would have been nice
to have done it once or twice in a controlled environment first,
is constantly changing, and after Courtney moved onto a Spruance-class
destroyer ship, the USS Arthur W. Radford, last Octoberher second
chief engineering tourshe became even more aware of the need for
continuing education to keep up to speed. The Navy ensures that
schooling for the new equipment is incorporated in Navy courses. If
the courses are unavailable, or if my personnel are unable to attend,
the technical manual usually provides the information we need,she
the surreal trauma of the terrorist explosion on the USS Cole, Courtney
acknowledges that living and working on a Navy ship is a difficult way
of life. Simply put, it is, if you are a man or a woman, no matter
your ethnic origins, she says. I don't think it makes a
difference that I'm a woman.As long as she has a flashlight, that
Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.