PASCAGOULA, Miss. -- A patched and battle-ready USS Cole returned to duty with a flag-waving, horn-blasting send-off Friday, a year and a half after a terrorist bombing in Yemen blew a hole in its side and killed 17 sailors.
Hundreds of people cheered along the shore as the Cole, gleaming in the sunlight, set off from Northrop Grumman's Ingalls Shipyard for its home port in Norfolk, Va.
The Cole returns to duty after 14 months of repairs and improvements. Seventeen stars were laid in the hallway floor, one for each of the sailors killed in the blast Oct. 12, 2000.
Mark Rozell, an Ingalls test engineer, choked back emotion as he watched tugs nudge the destroyer into the Gulf of Mexico to the blasting horns of nearby vessels. He said the Cole bears a message to terrorists.
"You can't destroy a destroyer," Rozell said. "She's proof of that."
The ship's 300 sailors -- including about 40 who survived the attack -- made their way aboard the Cole at dawn Friday at the same shipyard where the Cole was built and christened in 1995.
Bin Laden blamed
Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has been blamed by U.S. officials for both the Sept. 11 attacks and the Cole blast, carried out by terrorists who pulled an explosives-laden skiff alongside the destroyer as it refueled.
Philip Dur, president of Ingalls, said the Cole's departure Friday was a great moment for the Navy but a bittersweet one for the shipyard. The Cole was never decommissioned, so Ingalls' 700 workers assigned to repairs worked side-by-side with crew members and other personnel.
"We're saying goodbye to our partner in the restoration of a great Navy ship," said Dur, a retired rear admiral.
Ingalls stopped work in its production yard to allow about 1,000 workers to join in the send-off. About 75 family members also attended.
"They wanted to show when America is bloodied, she is not bowed," Dur said.
Cmdr. Kevin Sweeney said that the vessel will return to its home port in Norfolk, Va., but that he does not know its next destination. Officials said the ship would participate in sea exercises while on its way.