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A 1980 Coast Guard disaster killed 23 in Tampa Bay. Here’s one hero’s story.

Left to Right: Jeff Huse, 67, a survivor of the sinking of the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn on January 28, 1980, hugs Sam Flores. Flores' brother, William Flores, helped save crew members when the ship capsized. The ship collided with the SS Capricorn as it was leaving Tampa Bay. William Flores was one of 23 Coast Guard crew members who died. He was honored with a statue Monday at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector, St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS)
February 02, 2020

St. Petersburg \u2015 When officials commemorate an act of heroism, or a tragedy, or both, they almost always cite the numbers.

On Monday, it was the number 40. That’s how many years it’s been since the Coast Guard suffered the worst peacetime tragedy in its history.

And 23: the number of lives lost aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn after it collided with a passing 605-foot oil tanker in the waters of Tampa Bay.

Sam Flores admires a new statue of his late brother, William Flores, Monday at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector, St. Petersburg. The statue honors William Flores, who helped save fellow crew members on the US Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn when it sank on January 28, 1980. Twenty three crew members died.
(SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS)

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And, perhaps most poignantly, the number 18. That’s how old Seaman Apprentice William Flores was when he heroically went down with his ship. As the Blackthorn capsized, Flores stayed aboard, throwing life jackets to his fellow seamen. He allowed even more jackets to float to escaping crew members by propping open a locker door with his own belt.

Then, the 180-foot cutter sucked Flores into the depths of Tampa Bay.

“He drowned about 15 feet away from me,” remembered Jeff Huse, a survivor of the Blackthorn. “I probably floated with one of the life jackets that he tossed out.”

Huse was just one of dozens of Coast Guardsmen and women who gathered Monday to celebrate Flores’ heroism and to honor the lives lost. (On Tuesday’s anniversary, the Coast Guard will remember the tragedy with its own event.) As local politicians and members of Flores’ family looked on, Brighter Future Florida, a local nonprofit founded by former Congressman David Jolly, unveiled a concrete statue of Flores for its Circle of Heroes underwater monument off the coast of Clearwater.

Left to Right: Richard Flores of Arlington Texas talks with his son, Bobby Flores during a ceremony Monday, Richard Flores’ brother, William Flores, was honored with the unveiling of a statue and honored for saving some of his fellow shipmates January 28, 1980. The U.S. Coast Guard ship Blackthorn capsized after colliding with the tanker Capricorn.
(SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS)

One day, his group hopes to include 24 statues in total, Jolly said. For now, the number is 13. Flores’ statue is the first in the monument to resemble a particular person.

***

A freak set of circumstances led to catastrophe on the evening of Jan. 28, 1980. At least one of the passing Capricorn and Blackthorn ships was too close to the center of the channel near the Sunshine Skyway bridge. As the Blackthorn headed out to Galveston, Texas, and the Capricorn in toward Weedon Island, lights from a nearby cruise ship may have made it difficult for the two ships’ crews to see each other until it was too late. And even once the crews did spot one another, an inexperienced Blackthorn officer failed to properly communicate with the Capricorn. All of that is according to two government reports.

Sam Flores admires a new statue of his late brother, William Flores, Monday, January 27, 2020 at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector, St. Petersburg. The statue honors William Flores who helped save fellow crew members on the US Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn when it sank leaving Tampa Bay after colliding with the tanker SS Capricorn on January 28, 1980. Twenty three crew members died when the ship capsized including William Flores. The ship is now an artificial reef for recreational diving and fishing.
(SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS)

Even given all of those factors, the initial collision between the two ships wasn’t catastrophic. The vessels hit almost head-on, with the Blackthorn running down the port side of the much larger tanker. (No one on the Capricorn was harmed.)

It was the Capricorn’s 13,500-pound anchor that sealed the Blackthorn’s fate. It tore into the cutter’s hull, then pulled the ship down. Water began gushing into the Blackthorn. On board, chaos. After less than ten minutes, the vessel was sunk, 23 of its crew of 50 lost.

Although some accounts of the disaster say Flores wore a life jacket himself, his body was found without one, his brother Sam Flores said. Perhaps he gave his own life preserver to a colleague in need.

***

Eighteen is how old Flores’ nephew Bobby Flores is now. He doesn’t remember hearing very much about Uncle Billy growing up, even though his family hung a picture of him on the wall.

Before Monday’s ceremony, Bobby Flores read about the Blackthorn on Wikipedia. He talked with his family about the account of Larry Clutter, who served with his uncle on the Blackthorn. For years after the accident, Clutter pushed for the Coast Guard to honor Flores.

In 2000, the service heeded Clutter’s calls, awarding William Flores posthumously with the Coast Guard Medal, the force’s highest peacetime service award. And in 2012, the Coast Guard dubbed a vessel the Coast Guard Cutter William Flores. It’s still in service today.

Bobby Flores knows how deep service runs in his family. His grandfather, Robert, and uncle, Sam, served in the Navy. His father, Richard, served in the Air Force. Uncle Billy served in the Coast Guard. Bobby Flores plans to continue the family tradition as a future member of the Marines.

Richard Flores, one year older than Billy, has seen his son Bobby, a high school senior in Texas, grow older than his heroic brother. It’s a surreal fact made stranger by Bobby and Billy’s striking resemblance.

So how does Richard Flores feel about seeing his son follow in William Flores’ footsteps?

“There’s some anxiety when I think, ‘He’s going off to boot camp. He’s going to come back a man,’” Richard Flores said. “But I put it in God’s hands. He’s going to take care of him.”

IF YOU GO TO TUESDAY’S EVENT:

What: Coast Guard commemorates 40th anniversary of Blackthorn Tragedy

Time: 11 a.m.

Location: Blackthorn Memorial Site FL-55, the southbound Pinellas County side of the Sunshine Skyway rest area, St. Petersburg, Florida 33752

These are the people who lost their lives in the disaster:

Subrino I. Avila

Randolph B. Barnaby

Richard D. Boone

Warren R. Brewer

Gary W. Crumly

Daniel M. Estrada

Thomas R. Faulkner

William R. Flores

Donald R. Frank

Lawrence D. Frye

Richard W. Gauld

Charles D. Hall

Glen E. Harrison

Bruce M. LaFond

Michael K. Luke

Danny R. Maxcy

John E. Prosko

Jerome F. Ressler

Jack J. Roberts, Jr.

George R. Rovolis, Jr.

Frank J. Sarna

Edward F. Sindelar

Luther D. Stidhem

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© 2020 the Tampa Bay Times