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Friday, February 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coast Guard Investigates 3 Rescue-Mission Deaths -- Little Is Known About Response To Distress Call From Sailboat

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

In the Coast Guard, as in fire departments and search-and-rescue units, there are safety guidelines for rescuers. But it is sometimes difficult to draw the line, and danger is often present in the quest to save lives.

A jarring reminder of that came two days ago, when three crew members of a Coast Guard rescue team were killed on their way to help a couple in a sailboat who were danger in the churning waters near La Push.

The dead are Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24. Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo, 19, was the sole survivor.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Martha LaGuardia said the crew members were all strapped into their self-righting 44-foot rescue boat, as is standard operating procedure, but the conditions - a gale warning had been in effect since the previous day - likely forced each to decide whether to try to swim ashore and abandon ship.

The capsizing occurred after Kenneth Schlag and a girlfriend put out a distress call early Wednesday, as high winds and waves pushed their sailboat, the Gale Runner, toward jagged rocks near the mouth of the Quillayute River.

Two lifeboats - designed to operate in churning waters - were sent out to help; only one boat returned safely.

The lifeboats are built to work up to 50 nautical miles off shore, in surf up to 20 feet, seas up to 30 feet and winds up to 50 knots. Early Wednesday, all the weather conditions were below those limits.

A team of Coast Guard investigators, the Mishap Analysis Board, arrived in Port Angeles yesterday.

Headed by Capt. Carmond Fitzgerald of Detroit, the team planned to travel to Quillayute today to examine the site, according to LaGuardia. The team planned to interview Wingo, look at the wreckage and look at the safety mechanisms and technology used to see if lessons can be learned for the future.

Wingo had spoken with the Coast Guard's district commander, as well as a crisis team, to help him through his grief and emotion, she added.

Early reports indicated the lifeboat rolled three times but was operating as it should, LaGuardia said.

"The tremendous force of the water and wind and the situation they were in caused it to take many rolls," she said.

"The key thing is to interview the survivor, find out what happened, take the testimony of witnesses," said Capt. Edmund Kiley, chief of operations for the 13th Coast Guard District.

"There'll be an engineering expert who will examine the condition of the vessel, the records of the vessel, probably the mechanical condition of the vessel, how it performed the best we can determine from witness and survivor accounts."

Kiley said he didn't know what exactly killed the victims, although the bodies were "traumatized."

The National Weather Service also had issued a gale warning to boaters Tuesday afternoon and it was still in effect Wednesday morning. The gale warning, the second of three levels, is for winds between 34 and 47 knots; the highest warning is a storm warning for winds 48 knots and above, said Bill Burton, the Seattle marine-program leader for the National Weather Service.

Although Burton did not know details of the La Push incident, he said it could have been difficult for Schlag to maneuver the sailboat amid the ocean swells and the wind after the forecast was upgraded to a gale warning.

"You really don't have time to get yourself safely to port," Burton said.

A second, legal investigation will begin soon, LaGuardia said, to look at other aspects of the case to see if there was any fault or negligence in the incident.

Lt. Mike White commands the Coast Guard station at the mouth of the Columbia River near Ilwaco, where the tidal currents can be turbulent and unpredictable. The nature of his profession - to save others from harm - is often equally hazardous to him and his own crew members.

"What we do is inherently dangerous," White said. "Our job is to manage that risk. It's very rare that someone says `no,' particularly when lives are at stake. But it does happen."

Information from Associated Press is included in this report.

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

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