Coast Guard Petty Officer David Bosley was scheduled to leave the stormy coast of the Pacific Northwest in two months and head to the calmer waters off Oceanside, Calif.
But when a sailboat’s distress call came in early Wednesday morning, Bosley and three crewmen headed into the rough seas off La Push, Wash., about 115 miles west of Seattle.
Hours later, searchers found the bodies of Bosley, 36, of Coronado, Calif.; Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew E. Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Mo.; and Seaman Clinton P. Miniken, 22, of Snohomish, Wash.
They were the first Coast Guard crew members in more than 30 years to be killed because their lifeboat capsized.
The boat tipped over three times near The Needles, a volcanic rock formation off the coast.
Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo, 19, survived the accident.
Wingo told rescuers that after the Coast Guard’s 44-foot-long steel lifeboat rolled over the first time, all four men were still on board. After the boat rolled over the second time, Wingo said, only he and Schlimme remained.
It was after the third roll that Schlimme disappeared. The apprentice seaman told the authorities that he then jumped off the boat in knee-high water and waded to shore.
After the rescue boat capsized, Coast Guard helicopters searched for the missing rescuers but had to give up the search and help the passengers of the sailboat.
A California Navy lieutenant and his girlfriend who had made the distress call were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter as their 31-foot boat, Gale Runner, was breaking apart on the rocks.
The sailboat had been traveling from Oakland, Calif., to Bremerton, Wash.
“The decision to go ahead and rescue those people, even when we knew our boat was missing at that point, was very difficult,” said Capt. Terry Sinclair, chief of staff of the 13th Coast Guard District.
Wednesday’s deaths were the first fatalities involving the capsizing of the Coast Guard’s 44-foot lifeboats, which have been used since the early 1960s, Coast Guard officials said.
The 18-ton steel boats, which the Coast Guard calls “unbelievably reliable,” are designed to right themselves in 15 seconds if capsized.
The Coast Guard is upgrading the steel boats with 47-foot aluminum lifeboats, the first of which will be delivered to the district in April, Sinclair said.
On Friday, the Coast Guard began an inquiry into the accident. Investigators hope to determine how the seamen became separated from the boat. Under standard procedure, they strap themselves in.
“It’s almost impossibly hard to imagine any force that would tear them loose from the boat that wouldn’t give physical evidence of that,” Sinclair said, adding that it was possible the seamen had released themselves from the capsized boat.
Bosley had been in the Coast Guard for 11 years and had been stationed in La Push for three years. He had been cited for bravery in 1993, when he jumped into the surf at Yaquina Bay, Ore., and helped save three people whose boat had capsized.
“The man was truly a hero,” said Boatswain Mate Chief Glen Butler, who was on the 1993 rescue mission with Bosley.
“Selflessness was a key thing with this guy.”
Bosley’s widow, Sandi, said: “He was an awesome human being. It was like the two of us made a piece of cloth, and half of the threads are lost.”
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