Coast Guard remembers deadly Blackthorn crash 40 years later

Pinellas County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Forty years ago on Tuesday, the Coast Guard experienced one of the deadliest events in its 229-year history when a cutter crashed at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

The USCGC Blackthorn, a 180-foot seagoing buoy tender, sank near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge after it collided with the tanker Capricorn.

According to reports, 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 the Capricorn was standing in the bay.

Capricorn started turning left, but the ships were unable to pass port-to-port or make radio contact, the report said.

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 they were unable to avoid a collision.

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.

Six crewmembers became trapped in the skin of the ship and several others trapped themselves in the engine room as they tried to escape.

A total of 23 crew members died, while 27 others survived the collision.

Seaman Apprentice William “Billy” Flores is credited with saving lives by using his belt to keep a locker full of life jackets open, allowing crewmembers to access flotation devices.

The USCGC William Flores cutter is named in his honor.

Flores will forever be immortalized in a statute at the Circle of Heroes, an underwater memorial located about 10 miles off the Pinellas County coastline.

The Coast Guard held a ceremony at 11 a.m. Tuesday to honor Flores and those whose lives were lost. The ceremony included a wreath-laying by Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater and a laying of roses.

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