On 11 February 1997, I arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Quillayute River, Washington. As a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman, I had permission to live on board to conduct some research. The station is commanded by Master Chief Boatswain's Mate George A. LaForge, a professional with 26 years of U.S. Coast Guard service. Boatswain's Mate First Class Jon Placido is second in command. Only 25 men and women make up the crew.
On my first evening, I sat on the mess deck, talking to Machinery Technician Third Class Matthew E. Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Missouri. As a civilian, Schlimme worked on a tugboat on the lower Mississippi River. Before reporting on board the Quillayute River Station, he had served on a U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender on the upper Mississippi River. A favorite pastime when the tender hove to for the night was walking in the small towns along the river. I told a few stories about some small Iowa towns near the river and Schlimme hurried off, returning shortly with a road atlas to talk about some of the towns.
Then I talked with the officer-of-the-deck, Boatswain's Mate Second Class David A. Bosley, 36, of Coronado, California. He had just received orders to his new duty station, the U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Boat Point Hobart (WPB-82377), home ported in Oceanside, California. "These are my wife's orders," he said. Earlier, Bosley had requested the Quillayute River assignment and now his wife wanted to be stationed in southern California. Those who love to hunt and fish are home at Quillayute River. Bosley is qualified as a coxswain of the 44-foot motor lifeboat, the mainstay of a small boat rescue station.
At ten o'clock I decided to turn in, expecting to spend the next day talking to the crew and riding the lifeboat while the crew practiced their profession. As I was leaving the mess deck, Schlimme told me he was leaving the U.S. Coast Guard on 28 February, less than 16 days away. He gave me his normal ready smile and said, "I'm going home."
I looked through the window at the weather on the way to my room. Wind shook trees in strong gusts. Visibility seemed low and I could hear the surf crashing on the beach a quarter mile away. I dozed off wondering if I should reconsider riding the 44-footer. Riding a motor lifeboat is a young person's game. A few months earlier, I rode a 47-foot motor lifeboat for three and a half hours in moderate seas and was sore for several days afterward.
A short two hours later, I was jolted awake by sound of the search-and-rescue (SAR) alarm, blaring off the barracks wall. Then the announcement: "We have a sailboat on the bar taking on water!"
I waited a few minutes to allow the ready boat crew to race to their motor lifeboat, then I made my way to the operations room. Near operations, I looked out the double glass entry door and saw the wind still whipping the trees. Unlike movies or television, voices over radios are never crystal clear, and this is especially true when a storm strikes and a SAR case is in progress. Transmissions are usually bad: Static abounds and other stations compete for air time with stress-filled voices.
Two watchstanders, just out of high school, handled the radio traffic, intercom traffic, and telephone messages from Group Port Angles, Washington, Quillayute River Station's immediate supervisor.
The 44-motor lifeboat, CG-44363, with Petty Officers Bosley and Schlimme, and Seaman Clinton P. Miniken, 22, of Snohomish, Washington, and Seaman Apprentice Benjamin F. Wingo, 19, of Bremerton, Washington, was in the process of leaving the dock, while the second motor lifeboat crew was being mustered. Master Chief LaForge arrived from home just after I got to the operations room. Petty Officer Placido donned his survival gear and listened to the reports filtering into operations.
Port Angeles advised the station to hold the 44-foot motor lifeboat from crossing the bar, always a hazardous and dangerous operation in high seas and limited visibility. The SAR call might be a hoax. The watchstanders began calling the motor lifeboat. No contact.
Unless one keeps a detailed record, the rush of the events during a SAR case can become jumbled. Here are my spot recollections over the next few hours.
Master Chief LaForge, donning a Mustang survival suit, said, "Come on with me, Dennis, while I check the bar." We drove off in a four-wheeled drive Jeep, with a radio, to an overlook where the Master Chief could observe the pounding sea. He knew the area. We strained to look out into a sea driven by gale-force winds. I heard a faint transmission that sounded like: "We rolled the boat!" and something else.
LaForge called the motor lifeboat and then the station. The station answered: "I think it sounded like they said, `We capsized and are disoriented."' The watchstanders said that they didn't know if the 44-footer was reporting the sailing boat capsized and the people disoriented, or what. Information about the sailboat continued to blare from the radio in interrupted streams.
We returned to the station. Still no communications with the 44-footer. I watch both LaForge and Placido becoming uneasy.
"What color?" asked LaForge.
"Red." Red means distress.
"I'm going!" Placido shouted back, as he ran toward the second 44-footer.
"Let's go back to the bar," LaForge said to me.
Parking again at our observation point, we soon saw a red flare arching through the sky. I have participated in a number of cases involving flare sightings, all of which proved to be false. This is the first instance of actually seeing one fired in distress.
Suddenly, a bright light was seen moving through the darkness up, down, sideways, showing a roiling sea. The 44-footer with Petty Officer Placido and his crew of three aboard came into sight. The boat pitched and rolled, as only a motor lifeboat can in a heavy sea. It then turned from the protection of the river to make its run across the bar.
I will always carry with me the sight of Petty Officer Placido's 44-foot motor lifeboat as it met a swell during its passage-swells later estimated up to 20 feet. A searchlight probed the dark and the waters ahead, looking for obstacles. A small white boat rising. Rising. Rising. Rising until it seemed to stand on its stern. White water almost enveloped the small boat. Then came the plunge downward.
Master Chief LaForge kept up a conversation with the lifeboat, on his radio. Meanwhile, the sailboat was now definitely a case. Transmissions came in from a frightened woman who was having a hard time understanding the Quillayute River station's instructions-further complicating a situation that was worsening by the minute. Then everyone lost communication with Petty Officer Placido's boat. Calls from Master Chief LaForge and the station went unanswered.
A woman's voice: "Are you coming out to help us?" There is a call for helicopter assistance, which entails a long flight from Port Angeles in the heavy wind. More calls.
Petty Officer Placido: "We are on hand-held. Our antenna was damaged by a breaker." Master Chief LaForge advises Placido to remain in deep water. He will have to remain out until daylight, many hours away.
We returned to the station.
Further impressions of a very long, sleepless night: "Better put out beach walkers." Off-duty crewmembers started coming in without being called. The badly shaken woman on the sailboat was barely able to communicate. LaForge told a radio watchstander: "Stay off the air, if possible. If the pilot gets into trouble, he may have only one chance to broadcast for help."
The helicopter called the sailboat: "You have four minutes until you hit the rocks. Prepare yourselves." Moments later, we received a report that both people from the sailboat somehow had been hoisted to safety. Two beach party crewmen became injured.
A speeding truck approached the station with lights flashing and horn blasting. A crewman shouted: "We need an EMT! We need an EMT!" BM2 Brent Cookingham calmed the man down and obtained information. This man was not from the beach party. LaForge went off to the beach.
Two crewmen were brought into the station-one just barely able to hobble, the other with his arm tied to his body.
CPR was being administered to a crewman from the missing 44-footer who was washed up on the beach. A female radio watchstander was on the verge of tears, but was still working. By now, everyone realized that something bad had happened.
An injured crewman on the messdeck was in great pain; his shipmate was trying to support him, even while she fought back her own grief. Another crewman on the mess deck began to cry. Two other crewmen grabbed him and supported him with embraces. Everyone now knew that only one man survived the first lifeboat. [Later, after the mishap investigation began, information dribbled out. What is known so far is the motor lifeboat capsized and did everything its designers intended: It righted itself. All of the crew went about doing what they were trained to do in the case of a roll-over. Then the boat received another unexpected wave and rolled again. Bosley and Miniken were missing. Schlimme, the kid with the ready smile, took charge. The first thing he did was to ensure that Wingo, the break-in crewman, was securely in his safety straps, then he began to try to maneuver the boat. Before he could gain control, another wave rolled the boat and Matthew F. Schlimme was gone. Somehow, Wingo managed to get to the rocks and work his way up the cliff. He then started to shoot off the flares that are in every crewman's pyrotechnic vest.]
Master Chief LaForge was drawn, haggard, close to tears: "I should have trained them more. I should have trained them more."
Placido's boat finally was able to make it back across the bar. A helicopter pilot said: "I was scared!" A helicopter rescue swimmer swore that "Someone was watching out for us." A crewman from Petty Officer Placido's lifeboat said "I was scared!" Four crewmen were sitting exhausted on the deck, fighting tears, then embracing each other. A burly career Coast Guardsman starting to say something about Matthew Schlimme, then abruptly turned away and stepped into a closet. Boatswain's Mates never, ever cry.