ST. PETERSBURG -- Tuesday (January 28th) is the 40th anniversary of the incident that caused the worst loss of life in the peacetime history of the U.S. Coast Guard. It happened on that date in 1980, at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn (WLB-391), a 180-foot buoy tender built during World War Two, was heading out of the bay after an overhaul. It collided with the Capricorn, a tanker. An accident report stated that the ships didn't properly coordinate as they passed each other in the shipping channel. The officer on the deck of Blackthorn called for evasive manuevers, but the ships collided anyway.
The Capricorn's anchor became embedded in the Blackthorn's hull and opened a gash as it pulled away. The force tipped Blackthorn and caused the cutter to capsize.
Out of 50 crewmembers, 23 died in the accident. They included Seaman Apprentice William "Billy" Flores, who used his belt to keep the life jacket locker open so that crewmates could access flotation devices. The Coast Guard says Flores' actions saved the lives of many on board the Blackthorn. A Coast Guard cutter is named in his honor.
Flores will be honored Monday (January 27th) as a statue will be placed in his honor at Circle of Heroes, the nation's first underwater dive memorial honoring veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Flores' brother Sam will be among the speakers at the unveiling.
A memorial to the Blackthorn dead stands at the north rest area of the Sunshine Skyway in St. Petersburg. Services in their honor are held at that site and at Galveston, Texas.
The Coast Guard says this year's observance, Tuesday morning at 11 a.m., will include the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, as well as Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz. The ceremony includes a wreath laying by Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, an honor platoon representing each lost soul, acknowledgement of each Blackthorn victim, gun salute, and laying of roses.
Photo Credit: Preston Rudie, Catalyst Communication