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CNN Today

USS Cole Survivors Come Home to Heroes' Welcome

Aired November 3, 2000 - 1:13 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Smiles all around on a sunny day in Norfolk, Virginia, Natalie. We're here at the Norfolk Naval Station terminal where the 216 -- there are more survivors, but only 216 returning today to their families, and families are overwhelmed with that many sad days here -- sad pictures that we've been seeing, returning caskets and such. But today it's another story.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Two hundred-seventeen are arriving today, they just touched down 14 minutes ago and the families have just been unleashed to approach the plane, as we can see.

WATERS: Some confusion about the numbers Natalie. Apparently, one of the survivors from the Cole stayed behind in Germany with family members over there; so there are 216 in here.

And some of the crewmembers, Gary Tuchman, I understand, are staying with the Cole as it makes its way back to Norfolk.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Lou. What we're being told is the people who are staying aboard the Cole were not aboard the Cole in the first place when that disaster happened, they are members of the Navy who have been brought together to save the Cole; and they will start this journey back to Norfolk, Virginia Saturday.

But right now we are seeing some incredible pictures. We've got hundreds of family members waiting for this plane to arrive as well as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Norfolk Naval Base. Then it pulled up there; everyone waited very patiently -- the family members. But the second that the door opened and people started walking down the family members (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the plane.

The smiles and the tears, with signs -- many people are holding signs that say, "Find us Al," "Find us Brian," we're standing here, because they knew so many people would be here. But naval homecoming is a joyous time, but this one is particularly joyous especially (UNINTELLIGIBLE) these people went through on October 12 when the USS Cole was partially destroyed by a terrorist bomb; 17 people killed, 39 people wounded. We were here on October 15 when 37 of those 39 wounded came to this very same airport for another cheerful homecoming.

As of right now, three sailors remain in the hospital, two here in Portsmouth, Virginia, one in Maryland. They are all recovering, many of the injured (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

But here today, the rest of the members of the crew, 216 of them, sailors and officers. And as you said, Lou, one has stayed in Germany where (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But they're all coming down. They're holding provisions that were passed out from the plane just as the plane landed, and you can see their smiles, their happiness as they come down in their sunglasses and shades, a beautiful, sunny fall day here in Norfolk, Virginia.

This is where they left on August 8, 2000. They left for a mission that would keep them overseas until December; but now their homecoming has been made earlier. They are now celebrating Thanksgiving three weeks early.

WATERS: Yes, those of us here who take a trip overseas for a couple of weeks know how exciting it is to return to the United States. The emotion must be overwhelming for these folks getting off the plane today.

TUCHMAN: Lou, we were talking this morning with family members who were so anxiously awaiting this moment. And one of the things you have to keep in mind is that, for many of these people, for 24 hours, even more, they did not know if their loved ones were alive. And they were sitting in their home on October 12 just waiting to hear anything from the U.S. Navy -- is my husband, is my wife, is my son, is my daughter alive or are they hurt? And when you analyze it, as it turns out 1/5, almost 20 percent of the people aboard the USS Cole were either killed or wounded from this blast.

This was a huge blast, a 40-by-60-foot hole in the side of the ship. And these, really, candidly, are frankly the very lucky ones. They are coming home, they were not injured, they are being greeted by their loved ones. They now begin a two-week leave they've been given by the Navy; and what happens after two weeks is they all come back together -- all these Cole sailors, all the men and women, and they will serve office duty here in Norfolk for the time being while they're deciding what to do with their -- but look at these people, the smiles and the tears.

ALLEN: I think we just spotted somebody...

WATERS: Oh my...

ALLEN: What a wonderful moment.

WATERS: Is there a special plan for today, Gary, past the handshakes, the salutes and all the hugs?

TUCHMAN: What's happening is, after they meet with their family members, Lou and Natalie, they are free to do whatever they want. They only have a two-week leave, so they told the, go wherever you want and do whatever you want to do.

But what I found interesting here, Lou, is the Navy told the family members, please stay behind the ropes while they come off -- you know, just for security reasons. We don't want them to be overwhelmed. And we laughed because, two weeks ago, when the injured sailors came, everyone busted through the ropes. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) we knew the same thing would happen today; and the second the sailors started coming down they started running to them.

But you see these people craning their heads, craning for their husbands and their wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters to come off, just waiting and hoping. And you know that these two ladies we're looking at right now, any second they will see their loved one.

ALLEN: Here we go!

WATERS: Let her through, please!

TUCHMAN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have a family member in the military (UNINTELLIGIBLE) something incredible like this could happen; but, still, you don't think it will happen to the ship that your loved one is on. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and they know they're very lucky (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

WATERS: And, Gary, what does it mean, after the two-week leave that most of these crew members will be returning to the USS Cole detachment in Norfolk? What is the USS Cole detachment (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

TUCHMAN: Well, what they're going to be doing, strictly right now, Lou, is office work. And that means, as far as the future looks, if they go back out at sea or not, the Navy is going to leave that up to the individual sailors who are (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Some sailors' families have told us that their loved ones have already told them that, when the Cole comes back -- and it's expected back here in December and will be repaired -- that they hope one day to go back out on the Cole again; that's what they're saying. But as far as what their futures hold, we just don't know at this point for the majority of them. They'll have to go home and get their lives in order and, right now, just celebrate with their families.

The one thing we have -- I'm sorry Natalie, go ahead.

ALLEN: I was just going to ask, is the media going to be allowed to talk to the sailors today about their experience and how they feel about being home?

TUCHMAN: What the Navy is telling us is that -- the U.S. Navy has been very accommodating this entire time; and they've said that anyone who wants to talk, they would love them to talk to the news media. And, of course, we will talk to anyone who wants to do so -- we certainly won't talk to anyone who doesn't want to. We're sure that, based on what they've gone through, many of them won't want to talk; but the ones who do, we'll be happy to talk with and get an idea of what they've gone through and what they're looking forward to as they come back.

WATERS: What's in the canvas bag they're all carrying down the ramp? TUCHMAN: They were given provisions, Lou, by other naval comrades who went up the ramp before they came down the ramp. Still not quite sure what's in those bags right now. I anticipate we'll find out, but we can bet it's a nice welcome-wagon bag, welcome to the country they've served when they were overseas when this disaster happened.

One thing we need to keep in mind are the 17 sailors who were killed. When we were here two weeks ago, we spent some time with the mother and father and grandmother of one of the women who was killed aboard the USS Cole, Lakeina Francis. Lakeina was only 19 years old; she was a mess specialist; she was in the galley when this happened. She was missing, initially.

And while we were there, and this was the day afterwards -- and even at this point the Navy was saying it's unlikely that the missing would have possibly survived. This family said to us: We think she's still alive. We have faith. Perhaps she went on leave in Aden, Yemen. Perhaps they just made a mistake. And they were holding up hope that she was still alive; and, of course, they found out a couple of days later that they had found her body, that she had died, and they had her funeral the other day.

It's tremendously sad; and you forget sometimes -- it's something very important to keep in mind, that most of these people killed were young adults and teenagers. They were children just a few years ago. In Lakeina Francis' bedroom in the home we visited in North Carolina, she still had he Sweet 16 cards posted on the wall; she was a girl. So it's something -- you have to keep in mind that it's terrible when anyone dies in a scenario like this, but most of these people who died were basically kids.

WATERS: And, Gary, we have word from a woman named Cathy Quayle (ph), who is in that crowd where you are today, waiting for the arrival of her son who was uninjured in the attack on the Cole. His name is Brian West (ph), he's 22 years old. That's testament to what you're talking about -- these men and women were kids.

She told CNN earlier today that her son Brian plans to stay in the Navy. It's his decision, his choice, she says, and I respect that.

ALLEN: Gary, how many people would you say are in the crowd there?

TUCHMAN: I would say, right now, Natalie we're talking about several hundred people; and also there's another 100 to 200 sailors who just wanted to be here to welcome their comrades back to Norfolk, Virginia.

We see banners up on the wall -- and this is a brand-new terminal, by the way. This is interesting: This terminal was supposed to have its grand opening here at the naval base next month. This is now serving as its grand opening, and quite a ceremony it is. But the banners up on the terminal say "Welcome home our heroes" and "We join hands and hearts to welcome you home." This is certainly not the homecoming these sailors would have expected. Certainly, one of the great things about serving is the Navy, and every Navy man and woman will tell you this, is the homecoming. It's always emotional, it could bring a lump to your throat if you're just an observer watching it; but this is certainly not the type of homecoming they would have ever envisioned.

ALLEN: And, of course, they didn't sail home, either. The USS Cole making a slow trek back to Norfolk. It will arrive December 10 and it's still not certain, is it Gary, where this ship will go to be repaired?

TUCHMAN: Right, Natalie. It's going, right now, on the Norwegian transport ship the Blue Marlin. It's expected to leave Yemen tomorrow; expected to take five weeks to get back to Norfolk, Virginia.

It's ironic because, about a week after that was the time that the USS Cole was supposed to be back on its own if everything was normal. But they're not sure if they're going to repair it here in Norfolk or bring it to Mississippi -- there's a possibility it will be repaired in Mississippi.

We do want to point out to you that plastic C-4 explosives are what officials are saying are what caused this explosion. That investigation will continue for quite some time, we imagine. But at this point you can bet that the sailors coming off this airplane right now, while worried about the investigation and worried about their ship, are just real glad to see their families.

We also want to tell you that, greeting these sailors as they get off this airplane is the secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig; also the chief of naval operations admiral Vern Clark is there; and the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, the Atlantic Fleet is based here in Norfolk, that's admiral Bob Natter. Those are the three top officials greeting these sailors as they come down and walk into a sea of humanity -- the humanity being their family members who've been waiting so long to see these people.

WATERS: Here we got a face full of anticipation. Oh my!

ALLEN: Let's watch this one!

TUCHMAN: All the family members, Natalie and Lou, have been given T-shirts, USS Cole T-shirts -- they're actually long-sleeve T- shirts. So that's why you see so many people in those white shirts that say USS Cole. They were handed out, these homecoming shirts, to the family members to wear as people got off. But the images we're seeing today are very memorable. Something that I won't ever forget seeing in person.

ALLEN: Ah, there we go.

WATERS: Welcome home.

TUCHMAN: You can see some of these sailors dodging the cameras -- not there -- but what's nice to see is -- frankly, because we cover so many big stories where there are times where officials don't make it, necessarily, easy for the news media -- the people here in Norfolk have just been very easy to work with. And I think, in exchange, we've been easy for them to work with and that's why they're allowing so much access to these memorable images that we'll always see.

This looks like what you saw after VE Day in Times Square.

WATERS: It sure is.

How long was the Cole at sea, Gary? How long have these men and women been away from their home base?

TUCHMAN: Yes, the Cole left on August 8; this is November 3. So the Cole has been away for almost three months. It was to be a five- month mission. They were all to come back with their ship in the middle of December. ALLEN: So do these sailors know that, for sure, they'll return to the Cole one day? All of them?

TUCHMAN: You know, that's what a lot of family members are telling us right now, Natalie. We talked to them today and they said that my son or my daughter wants to be back on the Cole when its repaired and ready to go back out again. But, of course, we don't know when that will be. We also don't know how their lives and minds will change in all that time between now and then. But their family members believe it's nice that they feel that way.

But we also talked to the mother you were talking about before -- we talked to her and she said she doesn't want her son going back; and you can't blame her, as a parent, after experiencing something like.

WATERS: Here's someone getting reacquainted with daddy, apparently. Toddlers are here.

TUCHMAN: Yes, of course, being here, one of the wonderful things is seeing these happy children. We saw some sad children a couple of weeks ago who lost their parents, which touched all of us. And now the change of attitude -- seeing children smiling and happy and waving is a really nice thing to see.

WATERS: They don't want to let go, do they?

TUCHMAN: Can't blame them, Lou. Could you imagine the horror that these families went through for 24 hours just wondering what happened to their loved ones?

And I remember being here when they passed out the list of who died and who was missing; and it was, literally -- just looking at these names, knowing that these family members -- these people had all just been called and told this. It was hard to imagine what they must have been going through, hoping the worst didn't happen and then finding out that, indeed, the worst did.

And as we said before, these people here are just really the lucky ones, and they do realize that, Lou and Natalie. They are not taking anything for granted. That's why they're so happy and grateful and that's why you're seeing so many memorable pictures like we're seeing here today.

WATERS: Who's in this reception committee at the bottom of the ramp here?

TUCHMAN: Right down here we have some of the top navy officials. We have admiral Natter, the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet -- and the Atlantic Fleet is based here in Norfolk. It's the largest part of the Navy here. If you don't know this area, the Hampton Roads area, Virginia is a navy town. The Hampton Roads area consists of Norfolk and Virginia Beach and Portsmouth and Chesapeake; and this area -- everything is Navy here. If you don't like the Navy you don't want to stick around southeastern Virginia because it's a very important part of the economy, the culture and the life.

Also the secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig is here -- go ahead, Lou.

WATERS: Is this the captain we're looking at here? The captain came in with the group, did he not?

TUCHMAN: Well the commanding officer is Kirk Lippold. He's the commanding officer of the USS Cole. We expected him, actually, to come down first and he did, which is probably a gesture, on his part, to recognize the courageous actions of his crew.

But, yes, he came back with his crew -- the commanding officer of the USS Cole.

ALLEN: Are they -- we can't see the airplane right now -- are people still coming off the plane?

TUCHMAN: No, they are done. They have finished walking down the ramp of the plane, so the reunions are now underway for each and every one of the 216 sailors and officers aboard the USS Cole.

One thing to keep in mind, we still have one person who stayed behind in Germany. it's nice that his family joined him in Germany, but I think he's missing out on a wonderful opportunity to have come back the United States with his members of his ship. But I'm sure his family is there and he's happy to be in Germany right now. But all 217 are now with their family members.

WATERS: It's quite a big crowd there today.

ALLEN: Nice we can show this portion of this unfortunate story overall that we've had to cover here for a few weeks.

WATERS: So the survivors of the USS Cole are home; happy they're home, smiles all around at the Norfolk station terminal. They've just flown in from Germany; two week off, now, before they get back to duty.

And we've done our duty. We've covered it all.

ALLEN: And -- no doubt -- Gary Tuchman, thank you Gary. We'll be talking with the sailors and we'll get to hear from them throughout this day on CNN.

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