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Friday, February 23, 2024

Remembering the USS Cole Attack 21 Years Later

Our most important task was to recover 12 of the 17 sailors killed in action whose remains lay inside of the wreckage.

On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole entered the port of Yemen for a refueling operation. As the ship was moored alongside a refueling dolphin a small boat laden with explosives mixed in with boats removing garbage from the ship. The bombers detonated alongside the USS Cole, blowing a 40×40-foot hole in the side of the ship and tearing through the interior.

At the FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) a Rapid Deployment Team was assembled to respond to the bombing. Agents from the New York Field Office AQ squad were sent to Andrews AFB along with the WFO Team. As the Evidence Response Team (ERT)Team Leader chosen for this deployment we worked to assemble an eight-person ERT. We arrived in Yemen and worked with experts from the FBI’s Explosives Unit and USS Cole Capt. Kirk Lippold and his crew.

There were no manuals written on evidence recovery on a Navy destroyer in a deepwater port. We would soon learn our most important task was to recover 12 of the 17 sailors killed in action whose remains lay inside of the wreckage. A small team was chosen for this difficult task. Working with NCIS agents and Capt. Lippold, agents John Adams, Kevin Finnerty, Garrett McKenzie and myself would spend days locating and recovering the remains of the fallen with honor and dignity.

This would prove to be one of the most difficult deployments in all of our careers. Garrett responded to an email today with an amazing reply: “It has been a long dusty road, but it is easier at the end of the day with friends covered in the same dust.”

Please take time to remember the fallen from the USS Cole and the entire crew and their families: Andrew Triplett, Richard Costelow, Kevin Rux, Kenneth Clodfelter, Mark Nieto, Ronald Owens, Timothy Saunders, Ronchester Santiago, Lakeina Francis, Timothy Gauna, Cherone Gunn, James McDaniels, Lakiba Palmer, Joshua Parlett, Patrick Roy, Gary Swenchonis, Craig Wibberley. In addition, 37 shipmates suffered physical injuries.

Thomas O'Connor
Thomas O'Connor
Special Agent (SA) Thomas O’Connor entered on duty with the FBI in 1997. SA O’Connor was assigned to work in the Washington Field Office on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and during this time SA O’Connor has worked both International and Domestic Terrorism cases. Prior to entering on duty with the FBI, SA O’Connor was a Police Officer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where he worked for 15 years as a Municipal Officer leaving for the FBI at the rank of Detective Sergeant. As a Police Officer, SA O’Connor specialized in narcotics and violent gang investigations. SA O’Connor served as the program coordinator for investigations involving criminal activity/violence conducted by racially motivated and antigovernment violent extremists in the Washington Field office area of responsibility. These investigations include neo-Nazi and other hate-based groups as well as lone actors. SA O’Connor was Case Agent for both the Pentagon lone offender shooting and the Family Research Council lone offender shooting. SA O’Connor was a Team Leader on the Washington Field Office, Evidence Response Team (WFO ERT). In this capacity, SA O’Connor has led forensic teams to multiple terrorist attacks around the globe. These deployments include the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing, two deployments to Kosovo in 1999 for war crimes investigations, the 2000 USS Cole attack in Aden Yemen. SA O’Connor served an evidence team coordinator at the 9-11 attack on the US Pentagon, responded to the 2006 attack on the US Consulate in Karachi Pakistan, and deployed six times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. SA O’Connor processed evidence at both the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting and the Virginia Beach government building shooting. SA O’Connor specialized in Post-Blast Investigation and shooting reconstruction evidence recovery. In 2005 SA O’Connor was assigned to investigate hostage takings in Iraq Theater of operations. During this deployment, SA O’Connor was involved in the rescue of US Citizen Roy Hallums who had been held by extremists for 311 days. SA O’Connor has provided instruction on Domestic and International Terrorism issues across the United States and overseas. In 2004, SA O’Connor was awarded the Department of Justice “Instructor of the Year” award and was named as an FBI “Master Police Instructor” in 2010 and is a certified Adjunct Faculty member for the FBI Academy. SA O’Connor is a 2011 graduate of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany where he continues to instruct as an Adjunct Faculty member. SA O’Connor served as a member of the FBI Agents Associations (FBIAA) National Executive Board for three years, as the Vice President for seven years and President for 3 years, retiring from the FBI on September 11, 2019. This date was chosen to honor the FBI Agents who had passed due to the 9-11 attack and the illnesses related to that terrorist attack.

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