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Originally published Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 2:00 PM

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3 dead in Coast Guard copter crash off La Push

The Coast Guard has confirmed three of four crew members have died in the crash of a helicopter in the water off La Push.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Three members of a Coast Guard helicopter crew were killed in a crash off La Push on Wednesday morning, and a fourth crew member, who was pulled from the water soon after the aircraft went down, suffered a broken arm and a broken leg.

The injured crewman was airlifted from Forks to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.

"He's awake and alert and very stable," hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg-Hanson said of the man, who arrived at 12:47 p.m. He was in satisfactory condition with what are believed to be non-life-threatening injuries.

The MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crashed around 9:30 a.m. off James Island near the mouth of the Quillayute River at the northwest tip of Washington state. Two crew members were quickly rescued by five members of the Quileute Nation, who jumped into fishing boats and raced to the crash scene. One of the rescued men died after being taken ashore.

A third crew member was found around 11 a.m., and the fourth was pulled from the water at approximately 1:30 p.m., said Cmdr. Mark McCadden, chief of external affairs for Coast Guard District 13, which covers the Northwest.

The crew members have not yet been identified because Coast Guard officials are still notifying family members, McCadden said.

According to one witness, who is vacationing at a resort run by the tribe, the Coast Guard helicopter hit a large power cable that runs from La Push to James Island just before it crashed.

McCadden confirmed that power lines, used to illuminate a sand bar at the mouth of the Quillayute River, were down, but said Wednesday afternoon it was too early to know if the cables contributed to the crash.

Though the crew may have been unfamiliar with the area, McCadden said Coast Guard members are highly trained and rely on maps and charts to navigate.

"Power lines and other features are on their nautical charts," he said.

The four crew members — a pilot, a co-pilot and two crew — were based in Sitka, Alaska, McCadden said. They were returning home from Elizabeth City, N.C., where they had gone to have maintenance work done on their aircraft, McCadden said.

He didn't know what work was done but said Coast Guard aircraft routinely go to Elizabeth City for maintenance, repairs or modifications.

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The crew made stops across the country to refuel and left Astoria, Ore., on Wednesday morning.

Helicopter crews are required to check in every 15 minutes, McCadden said.

"They did not check in at 9:30. When we didn't get a radio check on their location, we started making other inquiries to try and hail the aircraft, which were obviously unsuccessful," he said.

An investigation has been launched, and Coast Guard officials are working to salvage the wreckage.

"This is a very difficult time for us to have lost some of our comrades," McCadden said, thanking the Quileute Nation, the Canadian Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the National Park Service for helping in the search. "To have them come to the assistance of the Coast Guard in our time of need is very much appreciated."

In La Push, roughly 200 miles north of Astoria, Darryl Penn returned to work Monday after vacationing in Los Angeles. The harbormaster for the Quileute Nation, Penn said he was at his desk, talking to a youth worker for the tribe, when he heard a strange noise.

"It's not a sound you ever heard before. It was like metal grinding. I thought a hoist had dropped something on a boat," said Penn, 43. "I think the helicopter hit a power line and went down."

He looked out his window to the southwest, saw the wreckage and got on the radio to signal the Coast Guard. He then saw a tribal member run by and fire up his skiff.

Penn jumped into the skiff with the other man, while three more men headed out in another boat. Penn said a Coast Guard cutter was nearby but couldn't get to the crash scene because of shallow water.

"We were looking for the orange [Coast Guard] jumpsuits," Penn said. "We ... didn't see anything at first."

Penn said they saw what appeared to be boots in the water. The men in the other fishing boat were able to get that crew member out.

Within minutes, Penn said, another crew member "popped out of the water and shot off a flare."

Penn's boat pulled alongside the man, who told Penn his left arm was broken.

"We kind of spun him around so his back was facing us and used his coveralls to pull him in," Penn said.

Penn and his companion performed basic first aid on the man and kept him talking so he wouldn't lose consciousness. As they headed back to shore, they saw a Coast Guard boat heading to the scene.

They got the injured crew member to the dock, where he was treated by emergency crews before being taken to a hospital.

"There was no thought about it — just reaction," Penn said of the response by tribal members. "The Coast Guard is here for us when our boys are in harm's way."

Tedd Judd, a neuropsychologist from Bellingham, is staying at the Oceanside Resort with his wife, brother and 91-year-old mother.

Judd, 57, said he and his brother "watched the helicopter coming in from the south" and commented that it was flying awfully low. They saw items fall off the helicopter just before it crashed on the other side of the jetty.

"They definitely hit the power lines — the power lines came down and the transformer went off," Judd said. "There were these big orange balls on the power line, and now those balls are lying on the beach."

Wednesday's accident was the deadliest in Washington involving the Coast Guard since three crewmen were killed Feb. 11, 1997, during an attempted rescue off La Push. The three died from blunt injuries after they went into the water when their 44-foot lifeboat overturned.

Killed in that accident were Seaman Clinton Miniken, 22, of Snohomish; Petty Officer 2nd Class David Bosley, 36, of San Mateo, Calif.; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Schlimme, 24, of Whitewater, Mo. Seaman Apprentice Benjamin Wingo, 19, of Bremerton, survived.

The MH-60 Jayhawk is a twin-engine helicopter with a crew of four, similar to the Army UH-60. Petty Officer Kip Wadlow in Washington, D.C., said it is primarily used for search-and-rescue and homeland-security missions.

An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crashed in the Utah mountains in March; the five people aboard survived.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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