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Wednesday, February 12, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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4 Coast Guardsman Survives Spill Into Sea Off Lapush

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Three Coast Guard crewmen died while a fourth survived after their 44-foot steel rescue boat capsized in heavy seas early today near the Olympic Peninsula town of La Push.

The self-righting boat - built to withstand rough seas - capsized as the four were trying to rescue sailboaters who had radioed in a distress call around 12:25 a.m. Though it was the first fatal capsizing for that type of rescue boat in its 35-year history, the Coast Guard said today it has been phasing such boats out of service and replacing them with faster, more stable aluminum boats.

The Coast Guard said the first of the four crewmen to be found was Seaman Clinton Miniken, who washed ashore just south of La Push. He was given CPR and taken to a Forks hospital, where he was on life support before he died.

The other two men, found later in the morning, were identified as David Bosley, 36, of Coronado, Calif, and Matthew Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Mo.. The sole survivor, 19-year-old Benjamin Wingo of Bremerton, was found in a cove near Schlimme and Bosley.

"It's the worst tragedy I have experienced in my command," said Coast Guard Admiral J. David Spade, district commander for the Pacific Northwest.

A ground search for the missing crew began around 2 a.m., when more than 100 La Push-area residents worked through darkness, pelting rain and high tides as they combed beaches for signs of the men. The Coast Guard also searched by air, using infrared sensors.

"You just have to see this ocean to understand the power of it," said La Push Police Chief Ken Lewis, who himself was almost knocked into the sea by waves hitting a rock jetty. "It was extremely dangerous out there. High winds, high tide, high surf."

Seaman Apprentice Wingo, the survivor, was the most junior member of the team. He suffered cuts and a broken nose and was reported in satisfactory condition at a Forks hospital.

The Coast Guard said Clallam County rescue crews rappelled down a cliff on James Island about a mile southwest of La Push and hoisted up Wingo, along with Schlimme and Bosley, both of whom were floating face down in a cove and were later declared dead.

The four crewmen were all from the Coast Guard Station Quillayute River, a small station, with a staff of 25, that the Coast Guard maintains near La Push, where many fishing boats have gotten into trouble in rough seas.

The station averages 86 rescues a year, said Robert Thomson, assistant chief of search and rescue for the station.

The rescue boat that capsized was one of two sent out at 12:30 a.m. along with a helicopter, after a Bremerton couple on the sailboat Gale Runner radioed that they were taking on water. The helicopter crew plucked the couple to safety before their sailboat crashed on the rocks.

The couple, identified as Kenneth Schlag and his wife, were treated for minor injuries at the Forks hospital.

The two Coast Guard rescue boats were standard steel-hulled, twin-engine boats that hold up to 25 people. They are designed to withstand a capsizing, with crewmen strapped into position.

Even so, the vessels are being phased out of service because of their age and maintenance costs and are being replaced by 47-foot aluminum boats that are faster, more stable and offer better protection to the crews.

It was not immediately known exactly how the accident happened. The Coast Guard said it is investigating the condition of the boat, the training of the crew members and other aspects of the mission.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time we've had fatalities in a capsizing. This is a very sad day here," said instructor Kevin Clark at the Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School at Ilwaco in southwestern Washington.

Word of the accident spread quickly through this community of 400 year-round residents on the Quileute Tribal reservation. "I think about every able-bodied man in the village turned out and was helping" in the search, Lewis said.

La Push Police Officer Brian King was among those who found Miniken; King administered CPR until an ambulance arrived.

"We were searching with flashlights and found him among the logs, on the edge of the surf, unconscious and no pulse," King said. Though there were no signs of life, King said he continued CPR "because I know that in cold-water drownings they've been able to bring people back after an amazing amount of time. . . . I was hoping for the best."

This morning's tragedy is the worst boating accident the Pacific Northwest district of the Coast Guard has experienced since the late 1970s, Thomson said, when several crewmen died after a 41-foot utility boat capsized during a training mission off Cape Disappointment.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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