PACIFIC COUNTY — Two women died while digging for clams on the night of Feb. 2. Although their deaths occurred in different parts of the county, Jerilynn Kay Reinke, 70, and Sharon Kay Leseman, 61, appear to have drowned under strikingly similar circumstances. The tragedies occurred within about an hour of low tide during an authorized clam-dig. Both victims’ bodies were recovered over the weekend.
Although an early press release from the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office said the calls came in within four minutes of one another, dispatchers later clarified that the calls actually came in about one hour apart.
Ocean Park resident Henry Reinke called 911 to report his wife’s disappearance just before 9 p.m. on Friday night, Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock of the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office said. The Reinkes were digging for clams near Leadbetter Point, roughly seven miles north of the Oysterville beach approach.
Reinke said his wife finished digging for clams around 8 p.m., and decided to go back to their vehicle. He saw her walk toward the vehicle, which was parked east of the shoreline. When he got back to the vehicle about five minutes later, his wife wasn’t there. She did not have her cell phone with her, so he waited, hoping she would show up. When there was still no sign of her about an hour later, he called 911.
Personnel from the sheriff’s office, Fire District No. 1, Washington State Parks and Department of Fish and Wildlife responded. Matlock said they searched the shoreline from the Oysterville approach all the way to the tip of the Peninsula and combed the dunes in the area where she disappeared, but did not find any sign of the missing woman. By late evening, the tide was inbound, it was dark, and fog had settled over the area, Matlock said.
Local responders asked the Coast Guard to send a helicopter at 9:17, Petty Officer Third Class Amanda Norcross said in a Feb. 5 email. However, the Coast Guard declined the mission, citing unsafe weather conditions. Local responders suspended the search in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Searching in vain
Around 20 to 25 responders and volunteers began searching again the following morning, Matlock said. These included relatives of the Reinkes, and others who learned of the search through Facebook. Around 10 a.m., county dispatchers asked the Coast Guard to send a helicopter from Sector Columbia River, and a search party from Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. Four local coasties helped with the ground search. The helicopter crew launched shortly before noon. However, around 1:30 p.m., the crew struck a bird and had to return to base.
“Another helicopter was not launched due to diminishing search and visibility conditions,” Norcross said.
The ground crew looked for Reinke until dark without finding any trace of her.
As they were wrapping up their search in late afternoon, a person discovered a body on the beach near Westport, in Grays Harbor County. Local authorities quickly confirmed that it was Reinke.
Dispatchers learned of Sharon Leseman’s disappearance from the beach in North Cove when her husband, Edward Leseman, called 911 around 10 p.m. At the scene, the Grayland resident told a deputy his wife finished clamming near Warrenton Cannery Road around 6:45 p.m. Like Jeri Reinke, she planned to go back to their vehicle to wait. She gave her lantern to her husband and headed toward their vehicle while he finished clamming. When he got back, she wasn’t there. He went to their home to see if she had gotten a ride from someone else, then returned to the beach to search for her. He called 911 about an hour after she went missing.
Since the Coast Guard had already declined to help with the first rescue, dispatchers did not ask them to help with the second. Matlock said personnel from north county agencies and State Patrol assisted with that search.
“We checked the beach and surf line and went into Grays Harbor County,” Matlock said. “We checked the roads to see if she would be walking and checked the state park nearby.”
Edward Leseman continued searching for his wife in the early hours of Feb. 3. Around 5:38 a.m., a beachcomber discovered Sharon Reinke’s body on a beach between the Cranberry and Midway beach approaches, near Grayland.
“It was almost exactly identical to what happened down there,” Matlock said.
Far from help
Responders aren’t sure how the women ended up in the ocean, and they may never know. There have been cases where people suffered serious medical events and were subsequently washed out to sea. Another common cause of beach drownings is the “sneaker waves” that can unexpectedly swamp the beach. However, the tide was still outbound when the women disappeared, and people at the scenes said the water was fairly calm.
Both parties left lights on to make it easier to navigate back to their vehicles in the dark, Matlock said. But he noted that there were numerous boats not far from shore that also had lights on. It’s possible that one or both of the women became disoriented, he said.
Authorities also noted that Reinke was wearing hip waders, which pose a drowning risk because they can quickly fill with water.
Both deaths occurred in remote areas. The only way to reach the place where Reinke disappeared is to drive on the beach for several miles. Leseman vanished in the sparsely populated area known as “Washaway Beach,” where rapid erosion constantly alters the topography and the water is full of debris. Cell phone reception is poor in both places.
When setting dates for clam tides, Department of Fish and Wildlife staff first assess the health and availability of clams, Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said on Feb. 5. Then, they look for times during the season when the tidal conditions will be right for digging. That leaves just a few tides a month, and even fewer that occur outside of work and school hours.
“We think about good low tides that fall around weekends,” Ayres said. “We don’t often have much to choose from.”
There are a few night-time clam tides each year, and it’s not unusual for them to coincide with poor weather, because the dates are set long before weather forecasts are available. Nonetheless, even the dark and stormy winter digs are generally well-attended, and business people like them because they draw tourists during the off-season.
“Especially in the Long Beach area, the business community said, ‘If you could offer a little bit of digging each month, it would really help our people,’” Ayres said.
WDFW encourages clammers to take proper safety precautions, and the agency has occasionally issued alerts when extreme weather or other potentially dangerous conditions coincided with clam tides. But, Ayres said, the agency’s role in clamming season is monitoring the availability and safety of clams, and upholding harvesting regulations. That’s not likely to change.
“We don’t want people coming to us for weather information or safety information. That’s not our role,” Ayres said. “We look to county agencies. If they see something dangerous enough, they need to make that call.”
Despite the dangerous conditions that sometimes arise during the season, clamming-related drownings appear to be rare. The last local drowning occurred in late January 2004. Longview resident Gene Lafever, 57, and his friend, Castle Rock resident Janette Caron, 54, disappeared while digging for clams at Leadbetter State Park. The next day, someone spotted their abandoned truck and called a tow-truck driver. Suspecting something was wrong, the driver called police. Volunteers and responders from numerous agencies searched for three days before calling it quits. Caron’s body was recovered near Tokeland, but Lafever’s body appears not to have been recovered.
Ayres said he and his colleagues plan to meet to talk about the drownings and review their policies. The agency might do more to educate the clamming public about safety precautions, he said, but he doesn’t think they will make any major policy changes.
“Given the overall track record of the fishery, I would doubt it,” he said.
Still, Ayres agreed that the women’s deaths should serve as a reminder that people must always be vigilant about safety when working or playing on Washington beaches.
“My heart goes out to people who went out and came home with a tragedy in their family,” Ayres said.