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Coast Guardsmen die in rescue effort

Jan 1, 2003

Three Coast Guard lifeboatmen were killed in February when their 44-foot motor lifeboat capsized and rolled several times while crossing heavy surf of the Quillyute River bar on the Washington coast.

One crewmember survived the accident, which occurred at about midnight on February 12 as the crew was responding to a request for assistance from a sailboat in trouble offshore. The survivor told Coast Guard officials that all crewmembers were wearing helmets and had been tethered to the vessel when it rolled, and that they had all remained tethered after the first roll. After that, however, three of the four crewmembers disappeared. Their bodies were later recovered.

It was the first fatal accident involving the Coast Guard's 44-foot motor lifeboat, which was introduced to the service in the early 1960s. A newer, more modern version of the famed life-saving vessels is presently being phased into service.

After taking several rolls the lifeboat drifted into a cove on James Island where the lone survivor was stranded by steep cliffs. He was later evacuated by a local search and rescue team, members of which were able to rappel down the cliffs to the beach.

It was determined by Coast Guard investigators that the lifeboat had not suffered mechanical failure and its re-righting capacity was still intact. Speculation was that the coxswain had been unable to recover after inadvertently getting broadside to breaking surf on the bar. Another Coast Guard motor lifeboat also deployed for the rescue crossed the raging bar successfully.

Two crewmembers aboard the sailboat Gale Runner were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter shortly before the yacht smashed into a group of shoals known as The Needles. "They were hoisted off just as the boat was going on the rocks," said a Coast Guard official in Seattle. "They were about a mile from where the 44 went aground."

The skipper of Gale Runner, a Navy lieutenant on leave from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, put out a Mayday call after his vessel was rolled and dismasted in the heavy surf. En route to Bremerton, Wash., in Puget Sound from California, he was attempting to enter La Push harbor to escape heavy sea conditions in the Pacific.

The vessel was abandoned and remained on the rocks for several days being pounded by the heavy surf. "The boat smashed apart on the beach; it's splinters right now, a total loss," said a Navy official.

Coast Guard officials predicted at press time that the investigation into the cause of the deaths would probably last for most of the year. According to officials, it is presently unknown how the three motor lifeboat crewmembers became detached from the vessel.