The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The USS Cole was bombed 15 years ago. Now it’s a floating memorial to those lost.

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows damage sustained on the USS Cole after a suspected terrorist bomb exploded during a refueling operation in the port of Aden, Yemen, in this Oct. 12, 2000 file photo. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, HO, File)

On the blue, speckled deck floor of the USS Cole, 17 gold stars shine. They’re a constant reminder of what occurred 15 years ago Monday — a terrorist bombing in the Gulf of Aden that killed 17 Americans and injured 39.

The victims ranged in age from 19 to 35. They were men and women from across the United States, serving on a U.S. destroyer that had pulled into a port to refuel. The attack was carried out by al-Qaeda affiliates, and ripped a 40-foot by 60-foot hole in the ship’s hull.

On Monday, the Navy marked the anniversary with a small ceremony in Norfolk, Va. “Taps” was played in memory of the Americans lost, and families gathered to remember them, according to media accounts from the event. Survivors also left messages like this one on Twitter to mark the day:

The ship itself could have sunk, but was saved by crew members who braved dangerous conditions to pump water and fuel out of it. The Cole eventually was taken home and received about $250 million in repairs, including the replacement of more than 550 tons of steel, Navy officials said.

The ship itself was turned into a floating — and yet operational — memorial. In addition to the stars, the ship now has a Hall of Heroes memorializing those lost and carries three American flags in a display case: the one that was flying over the ship during the bombing, the one that was laid over the casket of comingled remains buried at sea in 2002 and the one that was flying when the Cole returned to the Gulf of Aden for the first time since the bombing in July 2006.

One survivor, Greg Carlson, described spending the three weeks following the bombing as part of the crew preventing the Cole from sinking in a new piece by Navy Times. The group worked in the Yemeni harbor as President Clinton eulogized those killed in a service a few days later on Oct. 18, 2000.

“Being surrounded by that … that death and that tragedy, was not a healthy thing,” Carlson told Navy Times. “It was hard thing. So when we were inside — no light, no ventilation — it turned that ship into an oven. All the perishable stuff starts to smell.

“I really want to think that was the majority of the odor was the food going over — there was lots of food down there,” he added. “But it wasn’t just the smell of food.”