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Wednesday, June 18, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coast Guard Blames Crew In LA Push Fatalities -- Ill-Fated Rescue Prompts Nationwide Review Of Guard Lifeboats

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Mistakes, poor judgment and inadequate training contributed to the accident that killed three Coast Guard crewmen in a Feb. 11 rescue attempt off the Washington Coast, according to a report released today.

In addition, Coast Guard officials said all three died not from drowning, but from blunt injuries to their heads, an indication they were not wearing the helmets required in a rescue operation in the surf.

"The four crewmen should have worn helmets that night. I don't know why they didn't," said Rear Admiral J. David Spade, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District.

Coast Guard officials ordered an immediate, nationwide review of lifeboat operations to prevent a repeat of the tragedy at La Push.

Killed in the accident were Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, of Snohomish; Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, of San Mateo, Calif.; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Mo.

Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo, 19, of Bremerton, survived.

According to investigators, the 44-foot lifeboat "was not safely navigated" when the crew attempted to rescue a man and woman from a capsized sailboat.

Although the report is critical of actions and decisions of the rescue crew, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Kramek said, "Nothing we say or conclude in the aftermath will ever diminish the bravery and dedication" of the men who died.

In the report, much of the blame for the tragedy was placed on

Bosley, the coxswain piloting the lifeboat.

Bosley "failed to recognize his own limitations regarding his qualifications and experience handling the boat in these conditions," said Coast Guard Cmdr. J.M. Hasselbalch, chief of the Coast Guard's Prevention Division, Marine Safety Office of Puget Sound.

Hasselbalch also concluded Bosley failed to:

-- "Inform his superiors about the deteriorating weather and sea conditions."

-- "Properly brief, coordinate and prepare his boat crew."

-- "To assess the rough bar conditions correctly and/or exercising inappropriate judgment by crossing the bar."

The same report also said Bosley had not received the proper training, a problem at La Push and other Coast Guard stations. "The central problem identified in the study is that many of our personnel arriving at the stations are unqualified to fill the billets (jobs) to which they have been assigned," the report said.

A crew member with "surfman" training should have been piloting the vessel, and Bosley did not have such training, the report states.

Spade concurred with Kramek that the four crewmen showed bravery.

"Bosley was a hero. He set out with the best of intentions. He just made an error in judgment," Spade said.

But Spade also said Bosley showed questionable judgment once before, in a 1995 incident that caused him to temporarily lose his coxswain qualifications. In that accident, Bosley took a lifeboat into the ocean from the La Push station even though 11 of 16 bolts were missing from its handrail.

"This created an extremely unsafe condition and shows a lack of judgment," said a March 1995 investigative report, noting that winds and waves were heavy at the time.

His coxswain credentials were reinstated in September 1995.

Bosley's mother, Seraphine Bosley, reached today at her home in California, said she was unaware of the report's conclusions. "I didn't know many details of the accident," she said. "I wasn't there."

Kramek ordered a Coast Guard-wide safety review for all small-boat stations until corrective measures are enacted.

Those measures include stepping up training for Coast Guard personnel, making safety guidelines more clear and evaluating whether to relocate a watertight hatch handle on the rescue boats, Kramek wrote.

Preliminary reports said the boat rolled over several times after being struck by waves. Although the men were strapped to the boat, only Wingo stayed attached to the boat, Capt. Ned Kiley, 13th Coast Guard District chief of operations, said at the time.

The other three men ended up in the water. Their bodies were found among rocks on the shore of James Island, a small island just off the coast, near where Wingo was found and rescued.

The badly damaged lifeboat ended up beached deep inside a cove on the island.

The lifeboat was one of two dispatched to rescue Navy Lt. Kenneth Schlag and his girlfriend after their 31-foot sailboat Gale Runner, en route from California to Bremerton, was smashed by what he called a "rogue wave."

The wave blew out hatches and portholes and ripped away the mast as they were attempting to take refuge from a fierce storm.

They eventually were plucked to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter, and the battered sailboat washed ashore.

A gale warning had been issued the day before by the National Weather Service for winds between 39 and 54 miles per hour and it was still in effect that morning.

The two boats sent to rescue the couple were designed and built to work up to 57 miles offshore in surf up to 20 feet and seas up to 30 feet with winds up to 57 miles per hour. All weather conditions were below those levels that morning.

The twin-engine, steel-hulled boats are designed to be self-righting after capsizing. They are scheduled to be replaced by aluminum boats of a more-stable design.

In Snohomish, Miniken's grandfather, Daniel P. Miniken, said his son, Dan Miniken, was "taking this very badly. They were not just father and son; they were friends."

Haroletta Schlimme, mother of Matthew Schlimme, said she and her husband, Larry, had received a copy of the report. "We're still digesting it, and really don't have a comment right now," she said this morning. "We're just taking it one day at a time."

Coast Guard personnel at the Quillayute River station also declined to comment on the report, referring all inquiries to Coast Guard officials.

Kevin Clark, an instructor at the Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School at Ilwaco in Southwest Washington, said, "To our knowledge, this is the first time we've had fatalities in a capsizing." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Times staff reporters Charles E. Brown and Dee Norton contributed to this report.

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

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