January 28, 2017, marked the 37th anniversary of the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn which claimed the lives of 23 crew members, the Coast Guard’s worst peacetime disaster.
Coast Guard Foundation President Susan P. Ludwig, Regional Director of Philanthropy Brian Overcast, and board members VADM D. Brian Peterman, USCG (Ret.) and VADM Richard D. Herr, USCG (Ret.) were in attendance at the memorial service in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“I was honored to attend the Blackthorn Memorial and pay tribute to the 23 fallen crew members,” said Susan P. Ludwig, president of Coast Guard Foundation. “This annual commemoration is a moving tradition and remembrance to those who lost their lives that day. We will always remember them.”
From the official U.S. Coast Guard history on Blackthorn:
“Blackthorn was outward bound from Tampa Bay on the night of 28 January 1980. Meanwhile the tanker Capricorn was standing into the bay. The captain, LCDR George Sepel was on the bridge, but ENS John Ryan had the conn. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthorn continued almost in mid-channel.
“The brightly lit passenger vessel obscured the ability of the crews of Blackthorn and Capricorn to see each other. Capricorn began to turn left, but this would not allow the ships to pass port-to-port. Unable to make radio contact with the tender, Capricorn’s pilot blew two short whistle blasts to have the ships pass starboard-to-starboard. With the officer of the deck confused in regard to the standard operating procedure, Blackthorn’s captain issued orders for evasive action
“Though the ships collided, damage did not seem to be extensive. The problem, however, was that Capricorn’s anchor was ready for letting go. It became imbedded in the tender's hull and ripped open the port side. Just seconds after the slack in the anchor chain became taut, Blackthorn capsized. Six off-duty personnel who had mustered when they heard the collision alarm were trapped in the dark. Several crew members who had just reported aboard tried to escape and in the process trapped themselves in the engine room. Though 27 crewmen survived the collision, 23 perished.”
Seaman Apprentice William Ray Flores sacrificed his life to save others when the Blackthorn collided with the 605-foot oil tanker. Flores, 19, who had only been in the Coast Guard a few months, stayed aboard to throw life jackets to crewmates who had jumped into the water. He also assisted trapped crew members and comforted others who were injured and disoriented. When the Blackthorn began to sink, Flores used his belt to strap open the locker door so more life jackets could float to the surface.
Seaman Flores was formally recognized in September 2000 when he was honored posthumously with the Coast Guard Medal, the service's highest award for heroism not involving combat.
In November 2012, the Coast Guard commissioned the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William Flores to pay tribute to Flores’ heroism.