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

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Rescued Sailor Says Rogue Wave Crippled Boat -- Call For Help Launched Ill-Fated Rescue

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The Navy man hoisted to safety with a woman during an ocean rescue mission that led to the deaths of three Coast Guard crewmembers said today they radioed for help because a rogue wave hit and rolled their sailboat.

"Hatches and portholes were blown out, leaving the boat flooding, the mast torn from the boat and the motor flooded with water, leaving it inoperable," Kenneth Schlag, a Navy lieutenant, said in a statement released this morning.

The statement did not name the woman with him aboard the 31-foot sailboat, the Gale Runner. Earlier, the Coast Guard identified her as Schlag's spouse, but this morning the Navy described her as a girlfriend.

Schlag, 31, assigned since 1994 to the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, has denied all requests for interviews since the fatal capsizing of the 44-foot rescue boat early Wednesday morning off the coast of La Push.

Schlag said in his statement that he and the woman were sailing from Oakland, Calif., to Bremerton, when "we encountered inclement weather and attempted to seek refuge by making an emergency stop at La Push Harbor."

Minutes after they made a mayday call around 12:25 a.m. Wednesday, the Coast Guard sent out two four-man, steel rescue boats, along with a helicopter, which reached the stranded couple and plucked them to safety. Their sailboat later shipwrecked and washed ashore.

One of the rescue boats capsized in the rough waters, killing Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24. One crewman - Benjamin Wingo, 19 - survived.

Schlag said he was exchanging information with the Coast Guard while approaching La Push when his boat became disabled.

"The boat was then left drifting without maneuverability towards the rocky shore under the westerly winds. We then put out a Mayday for rescue," he said. Besides suffering minor cuts and bruises, Schlag and the woman came out of the ordeal "in good physical condition," he said. They were treated at Forks Community Hospital.

The statement expressed sympathy to the survivors of the rescue team: "We would further like to express our deepest sorrow to the families and friends of the men who lost their lives while saving ours," said the statement. There is nothing we or our families can ever do or say to repay these men and their families for their pain and loss and we will be forever indebted to them." The statement also thanked those who helped after the ordeal: "We will never forget the outpouring of kindness, care and support we've received from the U.S. Coast Guard, the emergency medical response team, the staff at Forks Community Hospital, all the support agencies, communities and invidivuals during a time of their own grief and loss."

Schlag's statement did not say why he and the woman were sailing in darkness and high seas.

The National Weather Service 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 of the 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. Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Martha LaGuardia said all four members of the rescue team were strapped into their self-righting rescue boat, as is standard operating procedure, but the conditions likely forced each to decide whether to try abandon ship and try to swim ashore.

Early reports indicated the lifeboat rolled three times, said LaGuardia. "The tremendous force of the water and wind and the situation they were in caused it to take many rolls."

The lifeboats are built to work up to 50 nautical miles offshore, 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.

Yesterday, a team of Coast Guard investigators from around the country, the Mishap Analysis Board, arrived in Port Angeles. Headed by Capt. Carmond Fitzgerald of Detroit, the team planned to travel to the Quillayute station today to examine the site, LaGuardia said. The team also planned to inspect the wreckage of the rescue boat and to interview Wingo, the survivor, who suffered a broken nose and facial cuts.

After the rescue boat capsized, Wingo set off flares; rescuers were able to rappel down a cliff on James Island and hoist him to safety.

Miniken's body washed ashore shortly after the accident, and the bodies of Bosley and Schlimme were found later Wednesday morning, floating face down in rocks in a cove off near where Wingo was rescued.

Wingo has spoken with the Coast Guard district commander, La Guardia said, as well as a crisis team, to help him through his grief and emotion.

"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.

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

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

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