Military officers heading a new commission to improve security of U.S. forces moving around the world said on Thursday a "horrific" blast tore the warship USS Cole in Yemen, driving the main deck up eight feet (2.5 metres) to rest against the top deck.
"Our impressions were that this was a horrific weapon, a big weapon, and did an enormous amount of damage," retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman said on returning from Aden, where the destroyer was hit by an apparent suicide bombing last month.
"We saw the main deck of the ship ... physically transplaced to where it was sandwiched up with the deck up above it," Gehman told a Pentagon news conference.
"The eight feet (2.5 metres) in between is just not there anymore," he said, adding that tremendous force must have been generated when a small boat loaded with explosives blew up near the Cole on October 12.
Seventeen U.S. sailors died and 39 were injured in the blast, which blew a 40-foot by 40-foot (12 by 12-metre) hole in the side of the ship, which U.S. and Yemeni officials say was caused by hundreds of pounds (kg) of sophisticated C-4 explosive.
Gehman and Retired Army Gen. William Crouch, heading a commission ordered by Defence Secretary William Cohen to see whether U.S. military forces in transit can be better protected, stressed that they were not charged with finding those responsible for the blast or determining whether the Cole captain and crew failed to protect the ship.
They said the FBI was working to find those responsible and the Navy itself was conducting a separate investigation of actions aboard the Cole in advance of the attack.
"We're not out to find culpability," said Gehman, who recently retired as the four-star admiral in charge of the U.S. Joint Forces Command.
"We're out here to make recommendations for improvement. We're out here to find ways the Department of Defence can better execute our national strategy," he added.
The Cole was mounted on the back of the Norwegian heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin near Aden earlier this week and is scheduled to soon begin a journey back to the United States for repairs.
Gehman and Crouch, who recently retired as vice chief of staff of the Army, said they had formed no conclusions yet about how to improve protection for military ships, warplanes and other forces as they moved about the world.
But both said they were impressed with the work of the crew to save the Cole after the blast and with the construction of the ship, which was was refueling in Aden while en route from the Mediterranean to the Gulf when the attack occurred.
"I (have) walked battlefields, both recent and historical," Crouch told reporters.
"I've never set foot on a steel deck that has withstood that number of casualties and taken that kind of punishment, and looked at sailors that were as resolute and as resilient," he said, adding that the crew had saved the flooding ship.
"I was impressed by the strength of the ship - how well the ship took the damage," Gehman said.