Rapid City native returns to USS Cole 20 years after attack
By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan Bair and Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally
SOUTH DAKOTA | NATIONWIDE – It was 11:18 a.m. on October 12, 2000 aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67). The ship had arrived in Yemen that morning for a brief fuel stop after completing a lengthy transit of the Suez Canal the day prior. Suddenly, the lights went out and all ventilation stopped. An explosion had occurred on the port side of the ship. Senior Chief Damage Controlman William Merchen, a newly frocked petty officer third class at the time, was one of three Sailors who had been putting tools away after completing their morning maintenance in the filter cleaning shop.
Cole had been bombed in a terrorist attack, killing 17 U.S. Navy Sailors and injuring 37 others. October brings with it a stark reminder of the lives lost and the invaluable lessons learned, reinforcing the gravity of what it means to wear the uniform of a U.S. Navy Sailor.
“We were standing there speaking one moment, and then the next moment we were on the deck on the other side of the shop and it was dark, the room was starting to fill up with smoke and we couldn’t breathe so well,” said Merchen.
Merchen said his shop contained light bulbs and cans of paint that had exploded when a small boat carrying two suicide bombers pulled alongside Cole and collided with the ship. Paint spilled all over the shop and broken glass covered the floor. The three Sailors made their way out of their work space and down the port side ladderwell to don self-contained breathing apparatuses and helmets equipped with flashlights on the damage control deck. Once they got on air, they began to hear voices in the Chiefs Mess.
“The things they were saying were beyond just ‘I’m trapped’ and ‘get me out of here,’” said Merchen. “People were describing how they were injured. We knew we had to get in there as quickly as possible, but that wasn’t going to be as easy as opening the door.”
One of the two Sailors with Merchen constructed a plan to create an opening in the bulkhead that had collapsed on the Chiefs Mess. They began rescuing the trapped Sailors inside. The rescue was just the beginning in the fight to save the ship. Over the next 12 days, Merchen and all able-bodied crew members aboard Cole tackled the massive damage control effort.
Merchen said everyone stepped up, dug in, and put their own safety and feelings aside to attack the damage to the ship and get people out, which, in the end, helped save a lot of lives. People who would otherwise have succumbed to their injuries survived because others stepped out of their comfort zones, stepped away from their typical job and responded to the crisis.
Today, Merchen is assigned to Afloat Training Group Atlantic as a damage control mission readiness inspector, where he is able to deliver first-hand knowledge to a new generation of Sailors, better preparing them to effectively combat casualties.
“It has shaped everything that I’ve done at every command I’ve been to,” said Merchen. “There hasn’t been a single one of those trainings or drills that I haven’t thought about the attack on Cole.”
Merchen has recently been assigned to work with Cole’s damage control teams to ensure they are up to speed and ready for any threat or casualty they may face while operating at sea.
“Senior Chief Merchen – He’s a professional,” said Cmdr. Edward J. Pledger, commanding officer of Cole. “I often talk about Cole heroes, and the honor of being able to meet any of them. He’s a Cole hero and having him on our ship and training us — it’s very special to have that opportunity.”
Merchen described his opportunity to work with Cole again as a fantastic way to reconnect with a ship that he is deeply proud to have served on.
“After several years, I hadn’t been aboard Cole, except maybe once since the attack,” said Merchen. “As I go through the spaces, I do think about what they looked like after the attack. I do think about where I know certain people passed away or where they were injured. It’s good to remember that stuff. It does a service to those people that were injured and honors the people that were killed.”
Merchen’s experience and the dedication he brings to damage control make his teaching and advice invaluable.
“When he speaks, our Sailors listen, because they know this isn’t somebody who just has been teaching it from a book,” said Pledger. “This is somebody who has done it in real life and understands that if you don’t do it right, people could die or you could lose your ship.”
As Merchen nears retirement, he finds pride and hope in today’s junior Sailors throughout the Navy, specifically, those serving on Cole.
“When I look into the news today and I see Cole is off on another deployment or completing another exercise or working with a foreign Navy, I see the ship floating in the water. I see it out executing missions to keep us safe in the United States. I know that the ship wouldn’t [be doing those things] if it wasn’t for the actions of so many brave people and the sacrifices of so many fantastic Sailors back in October of 2000 in Aden, Yemen,” said Merchen.
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) was attacked by terrorists at 11:18 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2000, while moored for refueling in the Port of Aden, Yemen. The explosive created a 40-by-60 foot hole on the port side of the ship, and Cole’s Sailors fought fires and flooding for the following 96 hours to keep the ship afloat. Commemorative events are scheduled to remember and honor the 20th anniversary of the attack and the service and sacrifice of the 17 Sailors who were lost, the 37 injured, and the Gold Star families. Please visit the commemoration website to learn more at https://www.surflant.usff.navy.mil/remember67.