Prism Magazine - February 2002
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Cool Under Fire


After 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.

Then at 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.

For Lt. 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.

Courtney 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.

The crew 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.

Courtney, 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.

How does 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 trained—somberly 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.

Damage control. Fuel-smeared water. Emergency lamps, no portable generators. It was an engineer's nightmare. But at least they had the flashlights.

If anything 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.

In early 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.

One of 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.

An engineering 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,” she says.

Technology is constantly changing, and after Courtney moved onto a Spruance-class destroyer ship, the USS Arthur W. Radford, last October—her second chief engineering tour—she 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 explains.

Beyond 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 is.


Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached by e-mail at