They clung to their boat in the Columbia River for 3 hours before someone saw them

Two boaters owe their lives to the crew of a tugboat heading from Pasco to Longview on the Columbia River this week.

A couple had been clinging to their small, capsized boat in the choppy river downriver of McNary Dam for three hours when they were spotted by the tugboat crew.

The man and woman were hard to see because of the rough water and whitecaps and the angle of the sun at 6 p.m. Tuesday, said Morrow County sheriff’s officials.

Another tug’s crew had missed seeing them when it passed just 30 minutes earlier.

Derek A. Ness, 38, and Laurie D. Merrell, 47, both of Umatilla, Ore., were finally rescued by the crew of the Tidewater tug, Ryan Point, led by Capt. Josh Burrows.

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Two people clung to their overturned boat for three hours in the Columbia River Sept. 11 before they were rescued by a tugboat coming from Pasco.

“If not for them and their vigilance, the end of this story would have been very different,” said Melissa Ross, administrative lieutenant for the sheriff’s office.

Ness and Merrell were hypothermic and weak, and one had a temperature so low it did not register on a thermometer, said the sheriff’s office.

An ambulance met the tugboat at the Tidewater dock at Boardman, Ore., after crews decided it would be too risky to transfer them to another boat in open water.

Sheriff’s officials said they will be looking into whether the overturned boat was seaworthy and had the required safety equipment when it left Umatilla just across the Columbia River from Benton County.