<Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Cole victims' families
share memories

By Sandra Jontz
Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Death claimed more than a U.S. Navy deck seaman when it took the life of Seaman Apprentice Craig Bryan Wibberley.

It claimed a perfect son, a young man dedicated to serving his country, and a father’s partner for fishing and rebuilding Corvettes, his family says.

Wibberley was one of the sailors killed in Thursday’s apparent terrorist attack on the Navy destroyer USS Cole, which had docked in the Yemeni port city of Aden on Thursday to refuel before joining the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

Craig’s father, Tom Wibberley, muffled his sobs Monday during a telephone interview from his home in Williamsport, Md., as he recalled the pain of watching the flag-draped coffins of the five sailors be unloaded Saturday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

"I just stood there and watched him go by," said the former U.S. Marine, choking back his tears.

"I was trying to keep my composure, but it hurt so badly inside," he said, his voice barely audible. "To think he was in one of those coffins and that I wasn’t going to see him ever again. It hurt so bad."

Wibberley still talks to his son.

"I tell him I wish he was here with me, how much I love him and I miss not having him here."

The U.S. Navy has tentatively scheduled for Wednesday an official memorial service in Norfolk, the Cole’s home base. The plans are contingent on President Clinton’s return from peace talks in the Mideast.

At 19, Craig Wibberley joined the Navy to travel and get an education, his father said. Craig Wibberley was scheduled to leave early on the Cole’s six-month deployment, which began in August, so he could begin computer training in Great Lakes, Ill.

The young sailor last communicated with his family the day before his death, sending them an e-mail about his 15-hour duty to stand post near the ship’s anchor in case it needed to be dropped hastily.

Some families were fairly eager to share stories of their loved-ones and the affect their deaths have had on their lives.

Retired Master Sgt. Hershel Gunn used to knock on strangers’ front doors to deliver solemn death notices that loved ones were killed while serving their country.

Nothing ever prepared him for a reversal in the circumstances.

Years of seeing the grief of others never readied the 50-year-old Texas man for the shock.

"This is all really awkward," Gunn said. "[Thursday], before the names were released, my heart went out to those family members who were being notified. Little did I know it would turn out to be me [who also had to be notified]."

Gunn learned Thursday his cousin, Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Lamont Saunders, a loving husband and father of two girls ages 7 and 11, had died in the blast.

Saunders’ younger brother, Terry Glass, 19, said he feels robbed of a chance to get to know his brother.

The two never lived together and Saunders joined the military and moved away when Glass was 7 years old.

"I never got to know him," said Glass of Ringgold, Va., which was also Saunders’ hometown.

"He [Saunders] was the life of the party," said another cousin, 35-year-old Dennis Grasty.

He remembers the two used to go out every Saturday night, but no matter how late they’d return home, their grandmother required them to attend church and Sunday school at Kentucky Baptist Church the next morning, Grasty said.

"He was a fun person who loved to crack jokes and loved homemade biscuits," Grasty said. "I was his favorite cousin. We were like two peas in a pod."

Miles away from the quaint town of Ringgold, Joy Ust spoke of her nephew, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Shawn Rux, of Portland, N.D., one still unaccounted for.

She broke down in tears as she spoke of the 32-year-old sailor’s love of hunting and fishing.

"And he was always smiling as a kid," said Ust, who runs a beauty parlor in Finley, N.D. "He was always so very happy."

Rux followed in the footsteps of his father, James Rux, who had been a "Navy lifer," said Ust, who last saw her nephew at his father’s funeral four years ago.

"Kevin was his daddy’s pride and joy," she sobbed, her hoarse voice saturated with pain.

Seeing the five caskets was a sobering sight that should remind the nation of a servicemember’s ultimate sacrifice, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said Friday.

"The pictures of the coffins arriving at Ramstein [Air Base in Germany] remind us that this is a moment of sorrow and a moment of gratitude for the sacrifices that not only these sailors have made, but that our military men and women make around the world every day, that they perform duty in our interest," Bacon said.

Thirty-nine sailors were injured in the attack and 33 of them returned Sunday from Ramstein to Norfolk, Va. As of Monday morning, all remained at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center near the Norfolk Naval Station for evaluation by staff surgeons and psychologists, a base official said.

Six of the most critically injured sailors remained Monday in a hospital in the African country of Djibouti, he said.

The remaining sailors of the 316-member crew will remain with the ship.

"We still have a ship that is very capable, and we obviously want to return that ship to full duty as soon as possible," Adm. Robert J. Natter, Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said Friday.

"We have a responsibility to maintain and keep this ship safe, and the crewmembers will do that," Natter said. "I will tell you that the USS Cole is a ship that was built to fight. The ship and its crew fought this tragedy very professionally. I think the power of this ship is indicated by the fact that it has held up so well with this kind of explosion and damage."

The crew, however, was "tired and distraught," Bacon described, and sailors from the frigate USS Hawes and destroyer USS Donald Cook arrived Friday and Saturday to relieve them.

The attack has sent officials scurrying to learn how someone managed to breech security procedures and whether policies should be changed.

The small boat reportedly seen next to the Cole shortly before the explosion was one of several vessels helping to secure mooring lines from the Cole as it prepared to refuel, officials said.

Port security is a responsibility of the host nation and the port authority, and the United States is required to gain diplomatic clearance in a foreign country’s port, Natter said.

Officials declined to provide more information about security measures and investigations and said they don’t know if the incident stems from U.S. involvement for peace negotiations the volatile Middle East.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The explosion occurred outside the ship’s hull and a witness reportedly saw two men stand up and possibly salute shortly before explosives blew a gaping hole 40 feet by 40 feet in the ship’s left side.

About 50 U.S. Marines from the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team are stationed on the ship or around its perimeter and are in charge of the ship’s physical security. Another 50 investigators from the Foreign Emergency Support Team, made up State Department, Defense Department, the FBI, and the Justice Department, are investigating the cause of the blast.

Bacon referred all questions about the investigation into the cause of the blast to the FBI, and FBI officials would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

While some investigators searched for clues into the cause of the blast, others searched in the Cole’s flooded compartments for the 10 missing sailors who were presumed dead, Navy officials say.

During the weekend, newspaper and television reporters interviewed the sailors’ families in hopes of revealing morsels of information about the lives of those dead or missing.

The other sailors killed in the attack were:

Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Costelow, of Morrisville, Pa.; Seaman Recruit Cherone Louis Gunn, of Rex, Ga.; Seaman James Rodrick McDaniels, of Norfolk, Va.; Seaman Recruit Lakiba Nicole Palmer, of San Diego, Calif.; and Ensign Andrew Triplett, of Macon, Miss. Those missing and presumed dead include: Petty Officer 3rd Class, Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, of Mechanicsville, Va.; Seaman Lakeina Monique Francis, of Woodleaf, N.C.; Seaman Timothy Lee Gauna, of Rice, Texas. Petty Officer 2nd Class Marc Ian Nieto, of Fond du Lac, Wis.; Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Scott Owens, of Vero Beach, Fla.; Fireman Joshua Langdon Parlett, of Churchville, Md.; Fireman Apprentice Patrick Howard Roy, of Cornwall on Hudson, N.Y.; Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronchester Mananga Santiago, of Kingsville, Texas; and Fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis Jr., of Rockport, Texas.