CPOA Galveston Chapter
USCGC Blackthorn Memorial Page:
The Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, homeported out of Galveston, Texas since 1976 was in a shipyard in Tampa, Florida for routine repairs during January of 1980. On January 28th, she got underway to return to Galveston. At 7:21 p.m. Blackthorn and the Motor Tanker Capricorn collided under the Sunshine State Parkway Bridge. Blackthorn sank, taking 23 of her crew to their deaths. 27 Blackthorn crewmembers were able to escape the Coast Guard's worst peacetime disaster.
This page is a tribute to these hardworking Coast Guardsmen who made the ultimate sacrifice to their ship, the Coast Guard and their Country.
The USCGC Blackthorn (WLB-391) was a 180-foot (55 m) sea going buoy tender (WLB). An Iris class vessel, she was built by Marine Ironworks and Shipbuilding Corporation in Duluth, Minnesota. Blackthorn's preliminary design was completed by the United States Lighthouse Service and the final design was produced by Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Corporation in Duluth. On 21 May 1943 the keel was laid, she was launched on 20 July 1943 and commissioned on 27 March 1944. The original cost for the hull and machinery was $876,403.
Blackthorn was one of 39 original 180-foot (55 m) seagoing buoy tenders built between 1942-1944. All but one of the original tenders, the USCGC Ironwood (WLB-307), were built in Duluth.
Blackthorn was initially assigned to the Great Lakes for ice-breaking duties, but after only a few months, she was reassigned to San Pedro, California. She served in San Pedro for several years before being brought into the gulf coast region to serve in Mobile, Alabama.
Blackthorn's primary mission was maintaining buoys and other aids to navigation along the Gulf Coast. She and her crew gave their all in working to make the local waterways a safe place for mariners.
In 1979-1980, Blackthorn underwent a major overhaul in Tampa, FL. Sadly, while leaving Tampa, Bay on 28 January 1980, she collided with the tanker Capricorn. Shortly after the collision, Blackthorn capsized, killing 23 of crew. The cutter was raised for the investigation, but ultimately was scuttled in the Gulf of Mexico after the investigation was complete.
Having just completed her overhaul, 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, Lieutenant Commander George Sepel was on the bridge, but Ensign 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, Capricornís 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, Blackthornís Captain issued orders for evasive action.
Though a collision was imminent, damage did not figure to be extensive. The problem, however, was that Capricornís 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. In the end the primary responsibility for the collision was placed with Commander Sepel as he had permitted an inexperienced junior officer to conn the ship in an unfamiliar waterway with heavy traffic.
The Blackthorn tragedy provided the impetus for the
establishment of the Command and Operations School at the Coast Guard Academy in
New London, Conn. The school offers courses to prepare command level officers
and senior enlisted members for command duty afloat. Commanding officers are
now required to formally assess risks, such as transiting an unfamiliar port at
night and are given full discretion and encouraged to say no if they feel the
risks involved are unnecessary.
The Blackthorn Memorial at Base Galveston, Texas
MAY SHE WATCH FOREVER IN MEMORY OF THESE LOST SHIPMATES
SS1 Subrino I. AVILA
SNGM Randolph B. BARNABY
MK2 Richard D. BOONE
SA Warren R. BREWER
QM2 Gary W. CRUMLY
DC2 Daniel M. ESTRADA
EM2 Thomas R. FAULKNER
SA William R. FLORES
SS3 Donald R. FRANK
DC3 Lawrence D. FRYE
QM3 Richard W. GAULD
SA Charles D. HALL
SA Glen E. HARRISON
MK1 Bruce M. LAFOND
FA Michael K. LUKE
MK1 Danny R. MAXCY
SA John E. PROSKO
SA George ROVOLIS Jr.
ET1 Jerome F. RESSLER
CWO2 Jack J. ROBERTS
ENS Frank J. SARNA
EM3 Edward F. SINDELAR, III
MKC Luther D. STIDHEM
CROSSING THE BAR
Sunset and evening star,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Twilight and evening bell,
For tho' from out our borne of time and
Blackthorn Memorial Service