Board Begins Probe Of Fatal Rescue Mission -- Autopsies Performed, Survivor Interviewed
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
By performing autopsies on the victims, interviewing the sole survivor and creating a plan to salvage the rescue boat, investigators yesterday began delving into a rescue mission that took the lives of three Coast Guard crew members Wednesday.
The Coast Guard's Mishap Analysis Board, headed by Capt. Carmond Fitzgerald of Detroit, arrived at the scene yesterday and planned to continue work over the weekend.
Three members of a four-man rescue crew were killed early Wednesday as they responded to a distress call in rough waters off La Push.
Dead are Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24.
Benjamin Wingo, 19, was the only survivor after the crew's 44-foot lifeboat capsized.
Wingo probably has the most vital information for the investigation, Fitzgerald said. He was interviewed yesterday afternoon, but his statements were not released because of confidentiality rules.
Finding out whether the men were strapped into the boat, as is standard procedure, will also be a key part of the probe, he said.
The rescue lifeboats are designed to right themselves after capsizing.
Preliminary reports indicated the men were strapped in, but for some reason Wingo was the only crew member who stayed attached to the boat, said Capt. Ned Kiley, chief of operations of the 13th Coast Guard District. Their boat rolled over several times.
Yesterday evening a special team of pathologists finished autopsies on two of the men and expected to complete the third last night, said Teresa Martin, deputy coroner for Clallam County.
The Coast Guard brought in the pathologists to perform the autopsies at the Clallam County Coroner's Office in Port Angeles, Martin said, adding that results of the autopsies would not be released until after the investigation into the accident is complete.
Fitzgerald's investigators were preparing a plan yesterday to salvage the rescue lifeboat and examine it, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Martha LaGuardia.
The boat ended up deep inside a cove on James Island, a small island just off the coast.
The main points of the probe include examining the lifeboat and records of its mechanical condition, listening to the voice communications between the lifeboat and the Coast Guard base and taking testimony from witnesses, LaGuardia said.
In addition to Fitzgerald, the Mishap Analysis Board includes an engineer with 28 years in the Coast Guard, a medical officer, both the current and prior commanding officers of the Coast Guard's national motor-lifeboat school, and safety and operations representatives, LaGuardia said.
A second, legal investigation will begin soon, examining whether there was any fault or negligence in the incident.
The accident occurred shortly after 12:25 a.m. Wednesday when Kenneth Schlag made a distress call from his 31-foot sailboat, the Gale Runner.
Two Coast Guard rescue boats were dispatched, including the one that capsized.
Schlag and his girlfriend were eventually lifted from their boat by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Schlag, a Navy lieutenant who is stationed on the USS Carl Vinson in Bremerton, released a statement yesterday in which he said the Gale Runner was trying to get out of bad weather and make an emergency stop at La Push harbor, when the boat was knocked down by a rogue wave.
Hatches and portholes were blown out, the mast was torn from the boat, and it was flooding as the wind pushed it toward jagged rocks near the shore, the statement said.
Navy Cmdr. Nettie Johnson, who helped Schlag prepare his statement, said the couple had been at sea for 2 1/2 weeks, sailing from Oakland, Calif., to Bremerton.
They said they had received permission from the Coast Guard to cross the Quillayute River bar but then encountered rough weather and difficulties, Johnson said.
LaGuardia could not confirm that but said she would look into Coast Guard records.
The National Weather Service had issued a gale warning - for winds between 34 and 47 knots - Tuesday afternoon, and it was still in effect Wednesday morning.
Schlag thanked the Coast Guard crew members who helped save them and expressed condolences to the families and friends of the men who died during the mission.
"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 said.
Schlag, 31, has been assigned since 1994 to the USS Carl Vinson, which until January was based in Alameda, Calif. He has denied requests for interviews since the accident.
Although the woman with him on the Gale Runner was originally identified as his wife, Schlag is not married. His girlfriend, whose name has not been released, is from the San Francisco Bay area, Johnson said.
Information from Associated Press is included in this report. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Memorial planned
A memorial service is scheduled for noon Wednesday for Clinton Miniken, David Bosley and Matthew Schlimme, the three Coast Guard crewmen who died this week when their rescue boat capsized. The service will be at the Quileute Tribal gymnasium in La Push.
Sympathy cards can be sent to: Officer in Charge & Crew, Coast Guard Station Quillayute River, P.O. Box 9, La Push, WA, 98350. Donations for a monument to honor the dead crew members can be sent to: Chief Petty Officers, MLB 44363 Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 632, Port Angeles, WA, 98362.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.