"It scares all of us," said Navy wife Christine Lewis. "It makes us very mad especially if you've got a husband on deployment. There are no words to describe what you're going through when you hear something like this."
An explosion ripped through the Navy ship shortly after 5 a.m. EDT, killing at least seven Americans, wounding 35 and leaving 11 missing, the Pentagon said. Authorities said a small boat carrying explosives had pulled alongside the ship as it was docked in Yemen.
In Norfolk, where the Cole's crew of nearly 350 is based, flags were lowered to half-staff across the city.
Grief counselors met with more than 100 relatives who gathered at the Norfolk Naval Station for news and identities of the dead and wounded. Officials said families were being informed of casualties but it was unclear how long that would take.
"It's very anxious for the families right now because they don't know the safety of their loved ones," said Catherine Stokoe, director of Naval Family Services.
The Navy also set up a "relatives only" toll free number to provide information for family members across the country.
Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, extended his condolences and commended the crew.
"This apparent act of a terrorist will not deter us from our service to the country and our global responsibilities," he said.
Gov. Jim Gilmore, who heads a congressional advisory panel assessing domestic response capabilities to acts of terrorism, said he was alarmed and saddened by the attack. The mayors of Norfolk and nearby Virginia Beach also extended their condolences to the families.
Military spouses live with the fear of losing a loved one every day, said Courtney Staruch, 35, who was shopping with her husband and 3-year-old son at the Navy exchange.
"We all feel the same way," she said. "There's nothing you can do."
Her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Staruch, 35, said danger is part of a sailor's job.
"It hits close to home," he said of the attack.
The 505-foot guided-missile Cole is assigned to a battle group operating in the Persian Gulf. The Cole is named for Marine Sgt. Darrell Cole, who was killed at Iwo Jima during World War II.
Since it left Norfolk two months ago, the Cole's crew has been in regular contact with loved ones back home by e-mail, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts. But Thursday, relatives did not receive a single message from the ship just the images of the injured overseas.
David Sanders of Houston nervously waited for news about his son at sea. "Chill bumps," Sanders said. "Real bad chill bumps. And the hope that it's not as bad as it had been reported."
CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters Limited contributed to this report