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Friday, February 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coast Guard Honors Heroism At LA Push

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Coast Guard has praise and thanks for 12 civilian volunteers - schoolteachers, construction workers and homemakers - who helped rescue a Coast Guardsman from a rocky island following the accident that claimed three lives at La Push earlier this month.

"These were great professionals," said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Kramek, due in Port Angeles today to present the rescuers, members of the Clallam County search-and-rescue team, with the Coast Guard's Meritorious Public Service Award.

Ten men and two women helped rescue 19-year-old Benjamin Wingo and recover the bodies of two other Coast Guard crewmen who died in the Feb 12. accident. The other victim was found by searchers on shore.

One of the volunteers, Lee Fuller, a 61-year-old retired schoolteacher from Forks, recalled being called out in the darkness after a Coast Guard lifeboat - itself on a mission to rescue two distressed sailboaters - capsized in heavy waves.

Fuller said dawn was finally breaking when a helicopter dropped him onto the windswept rock that is James Island. His job was to get Coast Guard Seaman Apprentice Wingo out of there alive - and see if his crew mates were also still alive.

Fuller rappelled down the steep clay slope in lashing winds and spray. Waiting halfway up the slope was Wingo, who had scrambled away from the deadly surf and giant tree trunks smashing onto the rocks below. Down the shore in the cove lay the crushed rescue boat and the bodies of two of Wingo's crew mates.

"Trust in God" prevented Fuller from clutching up, Fuller said yesterday.. "I had a lot of people praying for me."

Clallam County Sheriff's Sgt. Don Kelly described the predawn situation that faced his volunteers as a tragedy, "probably our worst."

"We had just worked with these guys a week before," he said, referring to a joint search effort to look for a Quileute tribal member who drowned while fishing in the river.

"We're all in the same business," he added. "You never think of this kind of thing happening. The rescuers out rescuing the rescuers. It's not supposed to happen."

Rescue team leader David Tate, a 29-year-old Port Angeles construction worker, said the group had been on more technically challenging missions, but that this one was particularly tough on the volunteers.

All three of Wingo's crew mates on the rescue boat were killed: Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36; Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24; and Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, whose body washed ashore on the mainland.

Tate described the volunteers as a close-knit family. His mother, Sharon Tate, is also among the 12 receiving a Coast Guard award. His girlfriend is on the team, too, but wasn't part of the effort that day.

Kelly described the award as bittersweet.

"It's kind of a hell of a way to get it," he said. "It's better to get the award when there's a happy ending."

Along with Fuller, Kelly and the Tates, those receiving awards are: Rob Edwards, Port Angeles; Cynthia LaChester, Neah Bay; Dennis Dailey, Port Angeles; Joe Kreider, Forks, and Doug Klahn, Forks. Besides Sharon Tate, those assisting at the rescue station and on the ground were Ron Tuff, Rick Twigs and Gordon MacDougall.

Also up for an award is the 21-year-old police officer, Brian J. King, who assisted in the rescue.

Ken Lewis, La Push tribal police chief, nominated King for a medal of honor through the Washington State Law Enforcement Medal of Honor Committee.

King was nominated for "his heroic lifesaving actions during the Coast Guard rescue operation." Lewis said. "It was very dangerous down there."

Kramek said he expects to know in two to three weeks whether any immediate changes need to be made in equipment or procedures at the rescue station.

That's when he'll receive findings of the six-member "Mishap Analysis Board" assigned to determine whether equipment flaws or misuse played a role in the tragedy.

One aspect being studied is that several devices to which crew members attach their harnesses on the lifeboat were missing when the boat was recovered. It's not known whether they broke off when the boat capsized or when it smashed into the rocks of James Island.

Keeping crew members attached to the boat, designed to survive a capsizing and right itself afterward, can be crucial to their survival.

A second investigation, an administrative review that involves sworn testimony and can lead to the assignment of responsibility for an accident, is likely to take about six months, the commandant said.

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

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