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Tuesday, June 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lessons From A Tragedy

THE candor of Coast Guard investigators who dissected a fatal rescue attempt off the Olympic Peninsula last February is as reassuring as the accident was tragic. The memory of the three brave crewmen who perished is not diminished by the obligation to understand events and learn from what happened.

Assessing responsibility, if not blame, is a delicate task when the mission of the organization demands so much of its people and the circumstances of a foul-weather rescue are by definition hazardous and unpredictable.

A large ration of courage is fundamental to meeting the challenge, but so are training, experience, judgment and professionalism. That is where the Coast Guard tries to even out the odds for the men and women sent into harm's way.

Investigators said the 36-year-old coxswain of a 44-foot rescue boat was technically unprepared to handle the brutal conditions tossed up by the Feb. 12 storm, and he failed to keep his superiors and crew advised of worsening weather and conditions. The boat, which overturned three times, scattered four crewmen into the sea. Only one survived.

Two people aboard a sailboat that was taking on water were saved by a Coast Guard helicopter.

The Coast Guard exists to serve the public, but there is a fundamental responsibility owed to subordinates expected to follow lawful orders. A leader's sense of duty that plunges him into the fury of a storm is admirable, but leadership also means making sure that time-tested rules, equipment and procedures are being used and enforced aboard the rescue vessel.

The commandant of the Coast Guard has ordered a safety review for all small-boat stations.

Success in the rescue business is a byproduct of professionalism, training and equipment. No one doubts the guts involved.

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

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