It was after dark when a bottom plank came loose on their 25-foot workboat. They were in big water where the South River meets Chesapeake Bay. Marine Police believe the boat was awash immediately and the engine quit.

Buffeted by hard southeast winds in a boat swamped with frigid water, the three Prince George's County men were defenseless. They followed Boating Rule 1--stay with the vessel--and were aboard when it washed up on a four-foot shoal 100 yards off the beach near heavily populated Turkey Point.

The men apparently were too cold, debilitated and disoriented to try to make it to shore. They shouted for help as waves washed over the boat. Eventually the cries were heard, but before rescuers arrived all three froze to death.

Things happened quickly Dec. 28 after the plight of James Roland Fisher, 40, and Michael and Douglas Rawley, 22 and 24, became known, but not quickly enough to save their lives.

The scenario that night provides insight into the suddenness of disaster on the water in winter and the importance of speed in response. It also has raised some questions about the role of the Coast Guard, which did not send a boat from a rescue station only two miles away. But Nelson Rawley of College Park, father of two of the victims, said he believes "everyone did everything they could" to save the men.

Ronald Engelmeyer, a retired District firefighter, was walking his dog on the beach shortly after 7 p.m. when he heard faint calls for help. Unsure whether it was a prank, he went home to get a light, returned and spotted the disabled boat offshore.

He asked his wife to call the fire department; that call was logged in at 7:21. By 7:28 the Coast Guard in Annapolis and the Marine Police had been notified. Twenty-eight minutes later, at 7:56, at least four search boats, including Engelmeyer in a commandeered crabbing skiff, were at the scene and the first victim had been retrieved from the 45-degree water. The others were retrieved in minutes.

The Coast Guard, with 24-hour response capabilities and a three-man search-and-rescue team on standby at the Thomas Point Station directly across the river, never showed. The commanding officer at the station said the initial report indicated that the boat was in water too shallow for the only rescue vessel he had in service, a 41-footer. A 17-foot shoal-draft rescue boat was out of service in a shed, where it had sat for two weeks awaiting routine maintenance.

"We didn't have a boat that could get in there," said Chief Warrant Officer Vic Zink. So instead of sending a team racing across the river the Coast Guard called Marine Police, who rousted two off-duty officers from home while the fire department sent rescue teams out with trailered skiffs.

Officials involved in the rescue effort don't think a Coast Guard response would have saved the men's lives, but more than one expressed surprise that an agency whose top priority is search and rescue made no effort to send help.

Could the Coast Guard have assisted? "Sure," said a marine policeman involved in the rescue effort who asked that his name not be used. "Most of the debris was in the middle of the river and one of the victims was found away from the boat. The Coast Guard has survival suits and they carry a rubber raft. They at least could have got to the scene."

Added Ken Mauk, who is retired after 24 years in the Marine Police but who was listening to the rescue effort on a scanner radio: "It isn't right. You'd think they'd be able to get a boat in the water and over there. They have a lot of young people working for the Coast Guard. I have nothing against young people, but sometimes you wonder if they know what they're doing."

The rescue people who did respond found a grisly sight. One of the victims had washed away from the boat; the other two were afloat in the cockpit, tangled in an anchor line. The rescuers rushed the men to shore where artificial resuscitation efforts were begun. The work continued in ambulances and at Anne Arundel General Hospital, but by midnight all three had been pronounced dead of exposure.

Baltimore Coast Guard Commander Tom Miles, who has authority over the Annapolis Station, defended his agency's actions, though he said he "had the same reaction the next morning," wondering why no boat had responded. He said Annapolis Station is required to keep only one boat in service in the winter and keeps its 41-footer operational because it has ice-breaking capabilities.

"We probably could have got in the area about the same time as the Marine Police did," he said, "but it would have been duplication of effort. Normally we proceed unless there's a quicker and better way through another agency ," Miles said, "and even then we usually proceed." He said the Coast Guard "did respond" to the emergency by calling Marine Police, "but not with a boat."

The three men were heading back to the West River, two miles down the bay from the South River, when the boat foundered. They had spent the afternoon hand-tonging oysters in the South River, where recreational oysterers are permitted a bushel a day per person. Nelson Rawley said that Fisher, who owned the boat, was familiar with the waters and with oystering but that the younger men were fairly new to it.