Wednesday, February 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Consecutive Waves Swept Away Rescuers -- Admiral Tells Details At Memorial Service

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

LA PUSH, Clallam County - Nearly 500 mourners at a memorial service here today for three Coast Guard members, killed last week in an ill-fated rescue attempt, heard moving new details about last week's tragedy.

Rear Admiral J. David Spade, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District, told the mourners that after a large wave capsized the rescue boat in darkness and high seas, the vessel righted itself, with all four crewmen still on board and working as a team to point it back toward the rescue of a couple in a sinking sailboat.

Another wave struck, Spade said, and the boat capsized again, sweeping two of the crew - Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, and Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, overboard - and leaving Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24, and Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo, 19, still on board.

Schlimme "took charge and put out a radio call, and he made sure that Wingo was properly buckled," Spade said. "Then another wave hit."

This time, Schlimme was swept off the boat, leaving only Wingo, who "had his life saved by the dedicated efforts of Seaman Schlimme."

Wingo, 19, wiped away tears as Spade spoke.

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Kramek awarded all four crew members a medal for heroism. Then he put on his white hat and gave a final salute to the fallen three: "We bid these guardians of the sea farewell," he said. "We will miss you but we will not forget you."

Among the hundreds who gathered here today in this tiny coastal community were Coast Guard members, Navy authorities, Park Service employees from around the state, Quileute tribal members and friends and relatives of the victims.

"They gave their lives so someone else could live," said Quileute Chairman Doug Woodruff who, along with a dozen other tribal members, opened the memorial service with drumming and chanting.

The Coast Guard has been a key part of this tribal community of 350 people, he said, its members doing everything from bandaging cuts to helping put out house fires - and rescuing people at sea.

In Seattle, nearly 450 Seattle-area Coast Guard members, Seattle police, firefighters and Coast Guard crews from Canada attended a memorial service at Coast Guard headquarters at Pier 36, where the La Push ceremony was broadcast via satellite.

The rescued couple - Navy Lt. Kenneth Schlag, 31, and a woman identified yesterday as Marcia Infante, 41, - had radioed the Coast Guard for help at 12:15 a.m. last Wednesday after a fierce storm off La Push engulfed their sailboat, the Gale Runner, snapping its mast and bursting hatches and portholes.

The Coast Guard sent two rescue boats and a helicopter. After one boat capsized, the helicopter crew "had to make a difficult decision, the correct decision, and diverted to the rescue" of the sailboat, Spade said. Working in perilous conditions - high winds and rain - the crew lowered a life basket down and saved "those two mariners from the sailboat."

As Coast Guard investigators probe the ill-fated rescue, veteran sailors continued to question why the sailboat was in the rough seas at this time of year.

"I've sailed around the world twice, and the Washington and Oregon coast can be just as treacherous as any place else in the world - particularly in the wintertime," said Mark Schrader, a Stanwood sailor who was the first American to sail solo around the world via the five southern capes. "That area is pretty notorious for blowing up in a hurry."

The couple's boat didn't have much company on the coastal waters.

"I've been in this office 12 years and we do get them (sailboats), but not this early," said Bill Cook, harbormaster for the Port of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. "It's voyager beware."

Schlag, a Navy lieutenant assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, has told investigators he had set sail from Oakland about 2 1/2 weeks before the tragedy.

He and Infante were headed for Bremerton, where the Vinson was transferred in January.

"That's how he was bringing his boat north," said Navy spokesman Chief David Butts, who spoke with Schlag yesterday aboard the Vinson, where Schlag, who joined the Navy in 1992, has resumed duties. He is assigned to the Vinson's deck department, in charge of the carrier's materiel, readiness and upkeep.

He continued to decline to talk with the media, "because he's talking to investigators," said Butts.

"I think he's still a little upset, too," Butts said. "But he's certainly expressed his gratitude to the men and women of the Coast Guard. Being a fellow man of the sea, he's deeply moved by this."

Schlag told Butts he was on military leave when he started the voyage and had given himself 30 days to complete the trip. The distance was about 950 miles, or 825 nautical miles, which he expected to cover in 14 days. But he allowed the additional time in case of poor weather.

He was traveling with Infante, a woman who lives in the San Francisco area, according to Navy spokeswoman Nettie Johnson, who characterized the journey as a "leisurely trip" with several stops along the way.

The last stop appears to have been at the Port of Westport, at Grays Harbor. Schlag registered the Gale Runner there last Monday and is believed to have stayed the night on the boat, said marina Manager Lisa Ben. Nobody talked with Schlag or Infante before they left, presumably the next day.

Storms form rapidly along the West Coast. Peter Worthington, who publishes Nor'westing Magazine, said the Gale Runner's size - 31 feet - made it particularly vulnerable.

"I had some friends in a much bigger boat, in a better time of year, get hit very badly" in a storm off Northern California, he said. "She broke her arm, he broke his rib. At one point, they even said goodbye to each other."

When Schlag approached Washington waters sometime in the first week of February, the sea was generally calm, according to the National Weather Service.

It stayed that way for several days, but started to stir about the time Schlag left Westport. By Tuesday afternoon the weather service issued a gale warning to boaters.

It's not known if Schlag was aware of the warning.

By that night, winds were lashing the coast and 22-foot waves were reported off shore.

"It came up really fast," said David Owens of the weather service. He said the peak occurred about 4 a.m. Wednesday, when waves hit 29 feet and winds reached 34 mph.

By then, the Coast Guard had already launched the rescue mission.

Investigators with the Coast Guard mishap-analysis board are continuing to review the accident.

The Coast Guard boat is still on James Island, awaiting a salvage operation beginning tomorrow.

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


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