USS Cole, once attacked by terrorists, in New London this weekend

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NEW LONDON -- The weekend leading up to the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks seems a fitting time for a US Navy destroyer, that was also subjected to terrorism, to be available for the public to tour.

The Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, featuring several important military vessels, is being staged at both Fort Trumbull State Park and State Pier in New London this weekend. Admission and tours of the vessels are free.

The USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, suffered a terrorist attack 17 years ago in the Middle East. 17 sailors were killed. And the only Connecticut sailor aboard the 300 member Cole crew showed FOX61 where the attack occurred on the ship.

The opportunity to come back home to Connecticut was very important New Britain High School graduate, Kelsy Huertas, who is a machinist mate aboard the USS Cole.

"It does mean a lot," she said. "The ship has history. We survived through a lot."

The call just returned to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia several weeks ago after a seven month deployment in the Middle East. During that mission, they cruised past the port in Yemen, where the boat was attacked October 12, 2000. As the ship was passing the port, the crew held the ceremony.

Huertas notes she is reminded every day about that attack.

"The shop that I actually work out of had two sailors that were working in that shop when they actually passed away in the bombing," she said.

Along this mess line, in a hallway, there are 17 gold stars, representing the 17 sailors killed, that are part of the flooring.

"When we transit through this P Way (hallways), we typically uncover (take hats off) out of respect," she says. "And we do not step on the stars. Anytime we have any guests for anybody on board we remind them for the courtesy you know not to step on the stars."

The mess decks, on the port side, or impacted most by the explosion most by the explosion. Crew members say the terrorists knew what part of our boat would be most crowded during lunchtime.

"There were a lot of people in here," Huertas said as she looked around the dining area. "If you read the book, it's chilling because they talk about where everything happened and we are walking through these P Ways everyday. So, it's almost eerie."

Among the many members of the public that toured the destroyer Friday: a young woman considering a career in the military.

"It's just really amazing to be able to be in the presence of something that is that important to our country and to our history," said Riley Stark, of Atlanta, who made a visit to the Coast Guard Academy Thursday.

The public is invited to tour this USS Cole, the Coast Guard Cutter Thunder Bay and several other boats of significance free of charge here at the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival throughout the weekend.