Homer man returns to home port

Heckert lands safely in Virginia after USS Cole explosion

Posted: Monday, November 06, 2000

How to help Cole victims, families

Killed in the Oct. 12 explosion on the USS Cole were 17 crewmembers; another 39 were injured. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society is coordinating public donations from individuals, groups and corporations for victims of the incident and their families.

Anyone interested in making a donation is asked to make checks payable to Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, or MNCRS, and include "For USS COLE" in the lower left corner of the check.

Donations are to be mailed to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, 801 N. Randolph St., Suite 1228, Arlington, VA 22203-1978.

It's always good to know your children are safely home.

On Friday, Don and Laurie Heckert of Homer received word their oldest son, Rick, was home safe in Durham, N.C.

On Oct. 12, he wasn't home. Instead, he was directly in harm's way aboard the USS Cole.

The 504-foot Navy destroyer was the subject of what is considered a terrorist attack while it was refueling in Aden, Yemen. An explosion ripped open the ship, leaving a gaping hole in its side and 17 of its crew dead -- another 39 were injured.

On Friday, 216 of the ship's crew, including Rick Heckert, finally returned to the Cole's home port of Norfolk, Va. Awaiting them were the open arms of family and friends, including Heckert's wife, Ellen, the daughter of Mark and Margaret Guldseth, also of Homer. Waiting in Homer were Rick's parents.

"I've talked with him on the phone," said Don Heckert of the Friday telephone conversation with his son. "It was a very, very enjoyable conversation."

A high school graduate from Homer, Rick Heckert, was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy in August 1998. Heckert, whose father served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, said his interest in serving in the military included wanting to see some of the world, wanting to do something fun while he was young and because of his patriotism. He joined the crew aboard the Cole last summer, shortly before it shipped out of Norfolk.

The ship's World Wide Web site includes a page welcoming the new crew.

"What happens when you receive orders to USS Cole?" the site asks.

"First, you have just received orders to the finest warship in the world!" it answers.

In spite of his recent experience, Heckert doesn't disagree.

"I think the Cole is great," he said from his North Carolina home on Sunday. "I love the Cole, but all the Navy ships are incredible. We're happy to make anyone part of the Cole team."

At the moment of the explosion, Heckert said he was standing 70 to 100 feet from the blast. In the days that followed, he said he found strength in his "faith and a lot of training that the Navy builds into you as you go through the process.

"There are just a lot of things that happen very quickly -- things that happen automatically. It was just good training.

"I have a division of men and one woman who work for me," Heckert said of the ship's engineering division. "They were the ones who were doing the work for the most part. The ship's divided in departments and the division of engineering, as well as the other departments, did a remarkable job in saving the ship."

High praise for the crew came at a Department of Defense briefing on Thursday from Gen. William W. Crouch, U.S. Army (Ret.), who was recently appointed to serve with Adm. Harold W. Gehman, U.S. Navy (Ret.) as co-chairs of a commission investigating the Oct. 12 incident.

"The action of the captain and crew following the attack saved the ship and several of those injured shipmates aboard," Crouch said at the briefing. "Not only was there an immediate response in damage control, but 48 hours later there was an apparent failure of seals, probably drive-shaft seals, which caused progressive flooding, which in turn put the ship in danger of sinking. Simultaneously, all electric power on the ship failed. And so the crew, now exhausted from the previous two days, with the remains of shipmates still trapped in the wreckage, had to reenter those dark confined spaces to battle again the inrushing sea and effect repairs.

"It was an inspired performance, and one of which every American should be very, very proud. Those sailors saved themselves, their shipmates. They saved the USS Cole."

When Heckert's plane touched down in Norfolk on Friday, he said he searched the crowd of well wishers for a familiar face.

"I looked for my wife first but didn't see her," Heckert said. "Then I saw the admirals and the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy standing at the foot of the plane. After that, I saw my wife.

"It was nice to see her and it's nice to be back on U.S. soil."

Also there to welcome the crew home were several of those injured in the explosion.

"It was very nice to see some of those people who were not able to leave the ship under their own power, walking around," Heckert said.

And he was finally able to call his folks.

Heckert is on leave for a month. During that time he said he plans to relax and catch up on some reading. He also has been in contact with some of the victims' families.

Have his thoughts about serving in the military changed?

"Not really," Heckert said. "Other than to be more cautious in the future. Mortality is a little more evident. I'm happy to be alive and will be happy to be back in Alaska one of these days."

Heckert said he and his wife are hoping to travel home to Alaska before the year is over. His father hopes so, too.

"I think they're making plans to come up for the holidays," Don Heckert said. "So the family's all atwitter for that. I expect to see them around Christmastime."

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