MIAMI — The October 2000 terrorist assault on the USS Cole killed 17 sailors and injured 39, among them Petty Officer 3rd Class Johann Gokool of Homestead, an electronic warfare technician who lost his left leg.
Last Wednesday, a week after his 31st birthday, Gokool transitioned from survivor to victim. Relatives say he died in his bed, apparently during one of the violent panic attacks that had plagued him since the incident.
His younger brother found Gokool about 7 p.m. Dec. 23 in the house they shared. Medical examiners still haven't said what killed him, but relatives believe that a deadly attack stopped his heart.
The U.S. Navy classified Gokool 100 percent disabled due to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The attacks came without warning, lasting from a few minutes to hours, and because of them, Gokool couldn't work, drive or even bowl -- his favorite pastime.
"He was afraid of having an attack with a ball in his hand,'' his sister, Natala, 29, said. "I'll pick him up to go somewhere and he'll sit in the back seat so if he has an attack, he won't distract or hurt me.''
Gokool, say relatives, frequently stayed up all night chatting online with military buddies around the world.
During the day, he couldn't make plans, his sister said.
"He didn't like to be in public in strange places . . . He'd be stuck in his room for days. He lived like an owl'' she said
He talked about the explosion all the time, she said. "Anybody who would listen, he would talk.''
Born in Trinidad, Johann Gokool was 8 years old when the family moved to South Florida. His father, Ramish, is Hindu, of Indian heritage; his mother, Liah, is French Creole Catholic.
Brothers Angelo and Hamish Gokool of Homestead, and Owen Paponette of Richmond, Va., also survive.
After graduating from Southridge High School in 1997, Johann joined the U.S. Army, then transferred to the Navy and went through boot camp at Chicago's Naval Station Great Lakes.
"He would have been a `lifer,' '' said Natala, herself an Army veteran. "He loved it so much.''
But on Oct. 12, 2000, as the Cole refueled at the port of Aden, Yemen, terrorists rammed it with an explosives-filled boat, tearing a 40-foot gash in the hull and triggering deadly fires.
Gokool was in the mess hall.
"When the explosion went off, everything was in slow motion, like a movie,'' he told The Miami Herald in 2005. "My body spun around and I could smell smoke and fuel.''
He fell four stories into an engineering room, where he lay unconscious for half an hour. When he awoke, he tried to climb into an escape trunk: a four-story ladder inside a metal tube.
Then he realized his legs were mangled.
"I don't want to die here,'' he told himself as he inched up the ladder, hand over hand.
At the top, he found himself trapped by a damaged steel door. He banged on it until rescuers found him.
His family saw the news on television.
"The same day, I knew he was alive,'' Ramish Gokool said, "but [Navy officials] never told us the extent of the injuries.''
Johann was flown to a military hospital in Germany, then to the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. Gangrene was spreading up his left leg.
"Johann made the decision to take the leg off,'' said his father, a police officer in Trinidad and security guard in South Florida. "That took such a weight off me.''
President Bill Clinton visited the hospital, and shook Johann Gokool's hand.
"The president . . . told me to hang in there,'' Gokool told The Herald. "I told him not to worry, that I'd make it, and to prove it, I'd open a nightclub and he'd be the first musician I'd invite so he could watch me dance on one leg while he played the sax. I mean, I was on morphine at the time.''
As he recovered, Gokool learned to get around on a prosthetic leg -- three, actually, his father said: one for walking, one for running track, one for swimming. And he sought PTSD treatment at the Veterans' Administration Medical Centers in Miami and Homestead.
They tried hypnosis and a hyperbaric chamber, Ramish Gokool said, but nothing helped. Several years ago, Johann stopped taking mood-altering medications because of the side effects, Natala said.
When he was awake, the episodes were generally mild, she said. When they struck in his sleep, he would thrash uncontrollably.
``We had to restrain him,'' said Natala, project coordinator for a Miami architecture firm. ``Once, he got loose and hit me with such force I went through the [open] front window.''
Later, he'd have no memory of the incidents.
``When he was doing well, he was outgoing,'' she said. ``He spoke to everyone and was very friendly,'' a practical joker who would play tricks with his prosthetic leg.
``When he wasn't doing well, it was physically exhausting.''
When he could, Gokool spoke to school kids about overcoming adversity. He played cards on Monday evenings, and had an on-again, off-again relationship with a longtime girlfriend.
He loved Buffalo wings, Caribbean dishes like curried crab and shrimp, and all kinds of music, from German punk rock to a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace to Sean ``Diddy'' Combs' raps.
He was clean-cut and preppy, Natala said. ``He didn't own a pair of jeans.''
Drenched in Davidoff's Cool Water cologne, he'd declare: ``I want to look sharp and smell good.''
A Naval honor guard will participate in funeral services after the 9-to-11 a.m. visitation Saturday at Branam Funeral Home, 809 N. Krome Ave., Homestead.
The family plans to take his ashes to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Cole dead lie in a special section.
``He always said he wanted to be interred with his buddies up there,'' his father said.