Families welcome survivors of attack

Yemen authorities question port workers in ongoing probe

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2000

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Louge Gunn needed a place to lament the death of his son, one of the 17 sailors killed in the USS Cole blast.

"When you're in pain like that you think you need a shot of cognac, but what I really needed was a shot of the church," he said as his son was remembered at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, where he was christened 22 years ago.

The memorial service for Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn was held Sunday, the same day of the return of his 33 shipmates who were injured in the suspected terrorist attack last week at a Yemeni port.

None of the wounded has a life-threatening injury, and doctors expected some to be released from the hospital today.

"We have 33 very tired, very hungry, but very happy sailors," said Capt. Martin Snyder, the senior attending physician at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital where the 30 male and three female sailors were taken.

In Yemen, where the bombing attack took place, security forces interrogated dozens of port workers and others including the head of the company that services U.S. warships.

Ahmed al-Mansoob, general manager of the Al-Mansoob Commercial Group that provides food, supplies and garbage pickup to the U.S. warships, was released today after two days of questioning. The two crew members of the garbage barge assigned to the Cole were also brought in and later freed.

Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, marketing director for the Yemeni company, denied any connection to the attack last week that killed 17 American sailors.

"No one here is an extremist," he said.

Several people remained in a highly guarded camp on Aden's outskirts, but it was unclear whether they were considered suspects in the explosion that tore a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer.

Yemen now considers the blast "a premeditated criminal act," according to SABA, the official Yemeni news agency, a position that is crucial to the investigation. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's backing is vital in allowing FBI agents and other U.S. terrorism experts to work closely with Yemeni authorities.

Back in Virginia, one of the injured sailors, 19-year-old Kesha Stidham of Austin, Texas, told NBC's "Today" show that the death toll would have been much worse if the ship had been attacked a few minutes later, because the crew was gathering for lunch.

"I didn't hear anything," she said. "I didn't hear the explosion. I didn't see anything. It just hit me all of a sudden."

She tearfully recalled those who died, saying, "It just seems unreal that they're not here anymore." And she said she doesn't really want to go back to sea, "but orders are orders, if I'm ordered to, then I am."

A crowd of about 1,500 sailors in dress white uniforms waited with the 200 relatives, and the Atlantic Fleet band played as the returning group and families boarded buses for the short trip to the hospital.

Two banners made by children of crew members were put up on the base's control tower for the arrival. The banners said, "Our heroes. We join hands and hearts to welcome you home."

At the Gunn memorial service earlier Sunday, members of the congregation surrounded the fallen sailor's parents, fiancee and three brothers, hugging them and blessing them.

Louge Gunn, a retired chief with the Navy, said he drew comfort from the service and stressed the pride he felt for his son, who enlisted in January.

"He was a hero," said Gunn, whose beige jacket was smeared with makeup by the end of the ceremony. "He gave his life for his country, for something that he loved the Navy. He was a sailor, a true sailor. His life was fulfilled."

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