ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — James Rovolis’ brother George joined the Coast Guard in 1979.
“He went to boot camp, came home for Christmas and this was his first deployment,” James recalled. “He was a typical 17-year-old; rambunctious, crazy, fun.”
But George’s life was cut short on Jan. 28, 1980 when the USCGC Blackthorn collided with a tanker and sank in the mouth of Tampa Bay. He was one of the 23 crew members killed in the tragedy.
“No one prepares you for that,” his brother said. “There’s no guide, no manual for any of that.”
According to reports, the Blackthorn had just completed her overhaul at the Gulf Tampa Drydock Company when it was overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan. The ship navigated to almost mid-channel to resume course as another ship, Capricorn was standing in the bay.
Capricorn started turning left, but the ships were unable to pass port-to-port or make radio contact. Capricorn’s pilot blew two short whistle blasts to signal that the ships pass starboard-to-starboard. The officer on deck of the Blackthorn issued orders for evasive action, but the ships collided. The Capricorn’s anchor became embedded in the tender’s hull and ripped open the port side of the Blackthorn, causing the ship to capsize.
Twenty-three crew members died, and 27 others survived the collision.
“People don’t think an accident can happen,” said Coast Guard Auxiliary District 7 Chief Daniel Helou. “It happens to the best trained, most prepared.”
“If it happens to one person in the Coast Guard, it happens to all of us,” Helou added.
“They had to reevaluate a lot of the safety protocols they had in place for people,” Helou said. “Sometimes if you’re not on war-footing, if you’re not in battle, you forget that the sea can take you anytime it wants.”
On Friday, the Coast Guard held a memorial service at the Blackthorn memorial site in St. Petersburg.
With the laying of 23 roses, the ringing of a bell 23 times, and 23 salutes, the agency paid tribute to each of the lives lost, and honored their sacrifice for our country.
“I think they’ve done a great job in honoring those who have fallen and I think that we need to always remember those who have served our country,” said Division 7 Commander Dean Hoskin.
Seaman Apprentice William “Billy” Flores is credited with saving lives by using his belt to keep a locker full of life jackets open.
The USCGC William Flores cutter is named in his honor. Flores is forever immortalized in a statute at the Circle of Heroes, an underwater memorial located about 10 miles off the Pinellas County coastline.