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Thursday, February 20, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Tearful Goodbye -- Coast Guard, Community Honor 3 Crewmen Who Died

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

LA PUSH, Clallam County - The sole survivor of last week's fatal Coast Guard accident said yesterday that he and his three crew mates were strapped to the boat when it capsized but he doesn't know how they came unstrapped.

"The force (of the waves) ripped the boat apart," said Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo.

Wingo, his face still bruised, spoke with reporters shortly after an emotional memorial service here yesterday where nearly 500 mourners gathered to honor the three Coast Guard members killed in the ill-fated rescue attempt.

The three died Feb. 12 while trying to rescue two people from a sinking sailboat during a storm off the Washington coast near La Push. Wingo, who suffered facial injuries, was found a short distance from the wrecked Coast Guard boat in a small cove on James Island.

Whether the crew was properly strapped into the 44-foot motor lifeboat - standard operating procedure for such a mission - or if the restraints malfunctioned, or the crew took them off as the boat rolled are questions the Coast Guard is investigating.

Wingo said yesterday he was conscious during the entire ordeal but he declined to elaborate because of the investigation.

According to the Coast Guard, the rescue boat pitched in 29-foot waves and then capsized and righted itself three times.

Two crewmen, Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, and Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, were swept overboard when the boat capsized a second time, said Rear Adm. J. David Spade, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District, who spoke during yesterday's ceremony. Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24, was swept off the boat when it capsized a third time, but only after putting out a radio call and making sure Wingo was properly buckled, Spade said.

Wingo shot off distress flares.

During yesterday's ceremony all four were awarded the Coast Guard Medal for bravery.

"I'm just going to miss them," Wingo said of his crew mates.

Wingo's memory of the accident has been key to the Coast Guard's efforts to reconstruct the accident.

"It (Wingo's memory) is fantastic," said Capt. Carmond Fitzgerald, who is leading the investigation. "We have gone back to him three times."

The wreckage of the rescue boat remains on James Island, where investigators have examined it extensively, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said there was nothing to indicate that the boat was not operating properly. He said the condition of the engine suggested that it had been operating "right up to the beach" of James Island.

Several parts of the boat were destroyed, he added, including the section where crew members would have been strapped.

Fitzgerald said he will complete a report on the accident investigation within a month. It's unclear when the Coast Guard's report will be made public.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Kramek, Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Sen. Patty Murray were among the crowd overflowing the Quileute Tribe gymnasium in this tiny coastal community.

Quileute Tribe members sang and drummed during the ceremony. Several of them said the Coast Guard station had close links with the community. Its members went beyond rescue mission, doing everything from bandaging cuts to helping put out house fires.

"They're always at the scene. Fires, health crises . . ." said La Push resident Bonita Cleveland.

Denise Graham, a 33-year-old Forks resident and ex-Coast Guard member, said she had served at the small Coast Guard station in La Push.

She said she had sailed many times in the 44-foot rescue boat that rolled over last week. The boats, she said, on which crews and survivors depend for their lives, become "your babies."

"She was a good boat," Graham said. "She and her crew just didn't get to come home."

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

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