The Seattle Times -- Seattle Post-Intelligencer

May 30, 1999       

REMEMBERING A SEA RESCUE GONE AWRY

 

By Christine Clarridge

Seattle Times staff reporter

 

 

Generally this site only posts stories written by Coast Guardsmen, Lighthouse Keepers, Dependents, etc. in an effort to show the everyday Coast Guard through the eyes of the people who have lived it. An exception is being made for this story, the story of a young SA who survived a disaster as reported by Christine Clarridge of the Seattle Times.

 

[In 1997, three Coast Guardsmen were swept into a raging Pacific on the way to aid stranded boaters. Today, the crew’s lone survivor describes the night his crewmates died in the line of duty.]

 

U.S. COAST GUARD STATION AT BARBER’S POINT, HAWAII  — Sometimes when Ben Wingo thinks about the accident, he changes the ending.

He imagines that he and his Coast Guard crewmates go out in the terrible storm that night and navigate their rescue boat in darkness down the Quillayute River into roiling waves and wind.

He imagines they snatch a couple of travelers from their sinking sailboat and return to the rescue station victorious.

He imagines everybody survives.

That’s why the rookie crewman signed up to work at a rescue station, after all — to pull daring rescues and celebrate success later over pitchers of beer.

“I wish we could just turn back time,” said Wingo, now 21. “That would have been great to have had a balls-to-balls rescue.

“But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Of the first four Coast Guardsmen who answered the distress calls of a sailboat off the western coast of Washington at La Push that February night two years ago, only Seaman Apprentice Ben Wingo, then a carefree, soccer-playing 19-year-old from Bremerton, survived. His three more-experienced crewmates died after they were ripped from the boat by two-story waves.

It was one of the worst accidents in Coast Guard history, prompting the Coast Guard to improve rescue training and equipment and bringing cards and condolences from around the world. Hundreds attended tributes to the fallen men. Hearts went out to the young survivor.

In the days and weeks that followed, Wingo, recovering from injuries, spoke privately with Coast Guard investigators, giving them a detailed account of what happened.

But overwhelmed and dogged by the intense and sudden interest in his life, he retreated, declining to speak publicly. Now, more than two years later, Wingo, still in the Coast Guard and stationed in Hawaii, feels ready to talk.

 

Lucky in life

 

Ben Wingo doesn’t remember ever worrying much about anything. He’s been lucky in life, he said, and can’t complain as long as there are slopes to ski, waves to surf and soccer balls to kick.

“I’m the kind of guy who could have fun at an insurance seminar,” he said.

His childhood in Bremerton, where he grew up in a working-class family — little sister, step mom and a father who worked at the local shipyard — was pretty darn good, he said.

His record-breaking soccer goals made him a star at King’s West High School. And his 6-foot-4, 220-pound blond good looks and goofball charm smoothed his path.

School was easy, sports were easy, and girls were easy. Cops let him go.

Wingo earned several partial college scholarships, but his family couldn’t afford to pay the difference, so he joined the Coast Guard, hoping to use military service as a ticket to a degree and chance to play college soccer. He was assigned to the Quillayute River Station in La Push, an isolated 25-person post on the Quileute Indian Reservation.

“I wanted to drive small boats and rescue people,” he said. “That would have been awesome.”

More than 100 rescues are performed each year off the rocky, treacherous coast.

“We get storms here that would devastate the East Coast,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Mike Saindon, the station’s second in command.

“The rain comes in from three different directions at the same time and it’s not uncommon for us to get 25-foot waves and gusts of wind up to 100 miles an hour.”

Despite the weather, Wingo liked La Push. He enjoyed working outdoors, scraping and painting the boats, learning rescue techniques, playing sports on the reservation and partying with friends in nearby Forks.

Occasionally, his happy-go-lucky ways caused trouble. Girls resented his irreverence, and he was sometimes taken for a fool.

“I was goofing around . . . and this one guy I worked with asked me if I had trouble paying attention,” said Wingo. “He wasn’t being mean or anything, he just thought I was stupid.

“I guess it’s because it’s hard for me to take anything seriously.”

 

Midnight distress call

 

On Feb. 11, 1997, Wingo and his 22-year-old roommate, Seaman Clint Miniken of Snohomish County, went to bed early after playing basketball with tribal members. It was just after midnight, 12:26 a.m., when they were awakened by the shrill sound of the search-and-rescue alarm.

A sailboat, the Gale Runner, had been hit by what the panicked owner described as a rogue wave and was taking on water. Wingo said the boat was reported to be west of James Island, a horseshoe-shaped mass of black rock that guards the mouth of the river.

As Wingo scrambled to get dressed, Miniken urged him to hurry. They raced to the boathouse, zipped into padded survival suits and donned emergency vests.

Miniken grabbed the surf belts —safety belts that leash to the boat to keep the wearers from washing overboard — and threw them on the boat. Wingo said he doesn’t know whether the helmsman put his on, but the others did. No one put on helmets, though they were supposed to, and Wingo, the last to get in, noticed but said nothing. He’d been there less than four months.

The National Weather Service had issued a gale warning the day before. There were reports of 75-mph winds and waves close to 28-feet high breaking over the sandbar.

“I knew it was supposed to get bad that night and it was raining so hard we were soaked before we even got on the ocean, but back then I didn’t really know what that meant,” Wingo said.

“I was like, ‘oh well, it’s raining, again.’”

As they headed down the river, the rookie was excited. It was his first night rescue, and it meant he would get most of the next day off and could sleep in.

The river bends down and drains into the Pacific just south of James Island. As they prepared to cross the sandbar that separates the river from the open sea, Wingo was watching for what’s call the wash rock, which is occasionally used by boats to hide behind while waiting for a lull in the breaking waves.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class David A. Bosley, 36, of Coronado, Calif., the senior member on board, was at the helm. He found the rock and raced around it.

An avid outdoorsman and former Marine, Bosley was a coxswain, qualified to take the 44-foot, self-righting, steel-hulled boats into heavy seas. The Coast Guard prefers that a surfman — trained to handle the most difficult seas — take the helm in extreme conditions, but it’s not always a hard rule, especially at small and understaffed stations. And, after all, an emergency rescue is an emergency rescue.

As they crossed the sandbar, Bosley radioed in the boat’s location and the conditions.

“He called in 15-16 feet and getting better as we go out,” Wingo said, “and I was about to call B.S. Those waves were a lot higher than 15 or 16 feet and it wasn’t getting better, but I was like, ‘oh well.’

“The waves were huge — they would lift us up and I would count, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three and then Bam! We were up there that long, and you had to bend your knees or they would shatter.

“The storm was so loud, the wind, the slamming waves, we could barely hear each other shout and we were standing three feet apart. It was so dark we couldn’t see the bow of the ship.

“If I’d known then what I know now I would have known it was really serious, but to tell you the truth, I was having fun. I thought ‘wow, all right’ — you know how you get that ‘whoo’ feeling.

 

‘Rock! Starboard! Ten feet!’

 

The 19-year-old aimed his spotlight on the island as the others searched for the sailboat.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Mo., said something like: Let’s get out of here, Wingo said. But Bosley refused to turn back.

Wingo saw a rock, one of several about 75 feet west of the cove in the center of James Island.

“Rock! Starboard! Ten feet!” Wingo called. Within seconds, the boat hit the rock.

In the next instant he heard “wave!” or “watch out!” and Wingo turned his head to see a huge wall of white.

“All of a sudden we were underwater. I hit my face on something and shattered by nose something fierce. I could taste the blood and the saltwater. It felt like we were under for a long time. I was spinning, I guess, as the boat rolled because when we came up, my surf belt was all tangled and it had been straight before.”

The spotlight was smashed, the mast was bent and the crew was reeling, but accounted for.

As they struggled to orient themselves, they were struck from behind by a wave that rolled the boat a second time, stern over bow — ass over teakettle, as Wingo put it — and slammed it underwater. When it righted, Wingo looked around.

The battered boat was snagged on a little ledge off the rocky island, at the mouth of the cove. The mast was gone, part of the stern was gone, the windshield and cabin cover were gone. Bosley and Miniken were gone.

The coxswain’s chair, where Bosley had been sitting, was ripped in two. For the first time that night, Wingo panicked. He wanted off the boat. He undid his surf belt.

Schlimme, in a no-nonsense voice, reminded Wingo of the cardinal rule: A sailor stays with his boat. He told Wingo to redo his harness, and to remain with the boat, no matter what.

Calmly, Schlimme asked for the radio and called in their location and situation. Wingo looked down and saw the radio was broken.

“He was just doing it to calm me down, and it worked because suddenly I was super calm.

“He was an awesome guy, an awesome engineer and he really knew his stuff,” Wingo said. “He saved my life by keeping me on the boat.”

As Schlimme tried to maneuver the two of them into the cabin for refuge, surf belts still tethered to the inside of the boat, they were broadsided by another wave that rolled the boat under a third time.

Below the surface there was a “tremendous quiet,” Wingo said. “I don’t know how to explain it. The night is raging. There’s all this noise, the wind, the water, and suddenly it’s just absolutely quiet.”

This roll ripped Schlimme’s harness from the metal hooks and shoved the boat inside the cove. When the boat surface, Schlimme was gone. Wingo was alone.

 

‘An all-out cry for help’

 

His mind raced: “What can I do? What can I do? I’m not the most devoted servant but I have Christian beliefs. I started praying — it wasn’t a prayer of all the things I would do or wouldn’t do if I was saved — it was just an all-out cry for help: ‘Please get my boat to shore.’”

Wingo looked at his watch. It was 1:07 a.m. when he took the distress flares out of his emergency vest, shot five into the air and aimed the last two toward land to gauge how far offshore he was, a survival skill he’d learned just days before.

Because of the pitch blackness, it was hard for him to tell if the sea was pushing him farther into the cove or pulling him back out, and a jammed cabin door prevented him from grabbing additional flares, flashlight or radio. He waited, straining to see land. Then he made out the dark form of a tree and knew that he was close.

He jumped overboard, swam ashore and scrambled up the side of the cliff to a ledge 50 feet up, as far from the sea as he could get.

A bit later he heard a helicopter, on its way to rescue the sail boaters who were found two miles down the coast amid treacherous rocks called The Needles. Wingo pulled a strobe from his vest, turned it on and lay down exhausted, his nose broken, one eye bleeding, a calf muscle torn. He struggled to clear his head.

“I had an idea that Bosley was dead, just from looking at his chair,” he said. “But I thought Miniken and Schlimme were alive and had made it to shore.”

Another helicopter flew overhead. The searchlight shone on him, then the water, then on him, then the water, back and forth.

“I found out later they thought I was dead or a life vest that somehow got washed 50 feet up the cliff.”

As morning came, he stood up to relieve himself, and the helicopter came in close.

“I was like, oh now you come down here,” he said.

Wingo could see a rescuer with a flashlight around above him on the edge of the cliff. Wingo started yelling and the man asked him his name and rank. He told Wingo to stay put.

Then a second rescuer rappelled down and fitted Wingo with a harness while the first looked down and, seeing a shape on the rocks, asked Wingo if it was a life vest.

“I looked down and it was Bosley just lying face down, like he was so comfortable, on some jagged, jagged rocks.

“I looked up at him and said, ‘no, that’s not a life vest.’”

Using the rope, Wingo climbed to the top of the cliff, was helped into a rescue basket and hoisted up to the helicopter.

“It was so loud in there, and the mechanic pointed to the seat. I got out and he stored everything away. Then he looked over at me, grabbed my hand, shook it and gave me the thumbs up.

“That’s when it hit me what happened and I started crying.”

 

Second boat turns back

 

It was immediately apparent to those at the station that rescue boat CG-44363 was in trouble.

The last contact the radio crew had had was the message the boat had capsized and the men were disoriented. From shore, probably just after the boat righted itself, if appeared someone onboard was wildly waving a flashlight.

A second rescue boat was sent out shortly after the first but was recalled because of the extreme conditions. After Wingo’s red distress flares were seen, the second boat’s crew raced back out again, in vain, unable to find signs of the first boat.

Dennis Noble, a historian and former Coast Guardsman who was there researching a book on small stations, said he walked the beach that night with the command master chief, George LaForge.

”He was choking back tears and saying, ‘I should have trained them more, I should have trained them more,’ Noble said.

By the time the two endangered sail boaters were brought safely to shore aboard a helicopter, Coast Guard members, rescuers and every able-bodied person from the tribe had fanned out, searching the beaches for signs of the lost crewmen.

Miniken was found first, washed ashore on the beach south of La Push. He was unconscious and had no pulse, but was given CPR and taken to a Forks hospital where he died. The bodies of Bosley and Schlimme were found hours later when Wingo was rescued. Miniken, Bosley and Schlimme had all died of head injuries.

The Coast Guard immediately began a four-month investigation into the accident, the first involving the 44-foot steel-hulled rescue boats.

Though investigators ultimately called Bosley a hero, they also pinned the blame on him. They said that in his determination to make the rescue he made serious errors in judgement: misreading the weather conditions, misrepresenting the conditions to his station and failing to adequately brief his crew.

As a result of the tragedy, the Coast Guard instituted broad changes. It stepped up replacement of the self-righting boats with faster, safer, longer ones. It replaced the old surf belt hooks with new self-locking models and made training and safety procedures mandatory, emphasizing that surf belts and helmets must always be worn in heavy seas.

Some felt the Coast Guard made a scapegoat of Bosley. They said high-seas rescues are inherently risky and that what happened that night could have happened to anyone. People make mistakes everyday. It’s just that most are lucky enough to survive them.

“Bosley did make a mistake,” said Noble. “But things don’t happen in a vacuum.” He said the root of the problem was not Bosley, but the way the Coast Guard treats small rescue stations such as La Push.

“They don’t get the resources, the training or the personnel they need to do their job, but the Coast Guard’s not going to say that,” he said.

“Bosley was screwed no matter what,” Wingo said. “What if he hadn’t gone and those people had died? He would have hung for that, too.”

 

‘What’s wrong with me?’

 

Life at the station changed. For weeks and months after the accident, the shrill of the search-and-rescue alarm brought tears to seasoned veterans. A call for help from a passing sailboat would prompt resentful curses from rescue crews. Once, a boatswain’s mate, about to tell a story about Schlimme, abruptly ducked into a coat closet and wept.

In some ways, Wingo, who was recovering from his broken nose and injured leg, seemed the least affected.

“Someone said, “Wingo either has a good way of hiding his feelings or he has veins of ice,’” Wingo said.

Overnight, the young man’s name and face became widely known. Whole fishing villages of people, who knew what it was like to lose someone at sea, sent him cards signed with the names of their boats and their families. Churches prayed for him. Girls consoled him.

At the public memorial service for Bosley, Schlimme and Miniken, Wingo sat dry-eyed while hundreds of mourners sobbed. Though he, too, grieved the loss of his friends and crewmates, he couldn’t cry.

“I was like, ‘what’s wrong with me?” he asked.

Then the chaplain read a poem in their memory:

 

           These poor plain men, dwellers upon

           the lonely shores, took their lives in their hands,

           and at the most imminent risk

           crossed the most tumultuous sea . . .

           and all for what?

           That others might live to see home and friends.

 

Wingo sobbed. Bosley’s widow Sandi hugged him.

“Don’t feel bad one bit,” she whispered. “You made it, honey. You’re such a good boy.”

 

‘He’s so happy’

 

A year later, the tragedy was still being talked about in the tight-knit Coast Guard fraternity of 35,000. When Wingo transferred to an aviation-mechanics school in North Carolina — because he wanted to be like the guy in the helicopter who’d given him the thumbs up at La Push — word spread quickly that the accident’s sole survivor was among them. Even then, Wingo couldn’t resist a joke.

“They’d ask if I’d met him, and I’d say, ‘yeah, he’s all screwed up. He, like, cowers in the shower.’”

Or they’d see the coveted Coast Guard Medal for bravery he and his fallen crewmates were awarded, and ask how someone so young could have earned it.

“I couldn’t believe it, actually,” said Jeremy Gustafson, who’s stationed with Wingo in Hawaii. “He’s so different from what I would have expected. I would have been devastated, and he’s so happy.”

Wingo says he is happy. He loves Hawaii’s jungle beauty, its beaches, and its weather. He enjoys his job troubleshooting helicopter and airplane engines, finding the broken parts and replacing them. He also moonlights as a bartender on base, goes out with friends, surfs and plays soccer.

He thinks often about David Bosley, Matthew Schlimme and his former roommate, Clint Miniken. Sometimes it’s unbidden, like when he’s watching a Clint Eastwood movie and remembers Miniken. Sometimes, he makes himself think about them.

“It’s not to punish myself, it just to remember them and what happened.”

He does have pangs of guilt that all three would have left the station within weeks of the accident: Bosley was to be transferred to a dream assignment in California. Miniken was about to start school. Schlimme was going home to Missouri.

But he doesn’t dwell on it or blame himself. He knows he could not have saved them.

“The admiral himself could have come out and said you blew it, and it wouldn’t matter, because I know I couldn’t have done anything more,” he said.

It bothers Wingo to be known as the survivor: to be scrutinized for signs of trauma or heroism, to be looked at with pity or awe, to be drilled for answers he doesn’t have. He said the accident probably changed him but he doesn’t know how and he doesn’t know why. He says he’s just a regular guy.

“Don’t make me into a saint. I’m not,” he said. “I’m just lucky. I lived, and they didn’t and there’s really no reason why. That’s just the way it happened.”

 

 

Note: Christine Clarridge’s phone message number is 206-464-8983. Her e-mail address is: cclarridge@seattletimes.com