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Coast Guard cutter named for heroic Blackthorn victim

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:48 PM
TAMPA -

Carolyn Flores Ahlstrom stood on a podium in front of the Coast Guard's newest cutter and issued the ceremonial order that began the service of a vessel named in her brother's honor.

"Officers and crew of the Coast Guard Cutter William Flores, you may board and bring the cutter to life," she said.

For the Flores family, it was a proud moment that came more than three decades after William Ray Flores, an 18-year-old seaman apprentice, gave his life to help save 27 of his crewmates.

On Jan. 28, 1980, the 180-foot Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn collided with the 605-foot oil tanker Capricorn near the entrance to Tampa Bay.

As the crippled cutter pitched over onto its side, Flores, who had been assigned to the ship for a few months, tied his belt to a locker to retrieve lifejackets, and dove down to help trapped shipmates. Flores was among 23 Coast Guardsmen who died.

"We were devastated by the loss of a dear brother and son," Ahlstrom told a crowd of more than 200 who gathered for the commissioning ceremony, held at the Port of Tampa. "What a comfort, and tremendous pride, to be recognized by such a great honor -- having a Coast Guard cutter bear his name."

Steve Coleman, now 53, had the watch shortly before the collision and was in bed when the two ships tore into each other.

"My first reaction was to leave the berthing area, below deck, to get up on deck with the rest of the crew," said Coleman, minutes after the ceremony ended. "We had to face the situation we were dealing with."

The situation was a ship that was "completely inverted and sinking." It went down in less than four minutes.

"There was pandemonium," Coleman said. "I climbed out a hatch on the fantail area and entered the water. There was no deck to stand on; the ship had completely rolled over."

Coleman said he looked back in the darkness at the sinking ship.

"I did see silhouettes, more than one man, on the inverted hull of the ship," he said. "I can only assume Billy was one of those guys."

Both raw seamen with little experience, Coleman said he and Flores had bonded quickly.

"We spent a lot of time together," he said. He was a really good friend. A fine Coast Guardsman. A wonderful, wonderful guy."

Coleman shared the Flores' family's sentiments.

"I can't think of a better way to honor my shipmate," he said, "than to have a cutter bear his name."

The timing of the ceremony -- less than a week after Coast Guard crews risked their lives to save 14 survivors of the HMS Bounty, a ship heading to St. Petersburg that sank after running into Hurricane Sandy -- was not lost on Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.

One Bounty crewmember, Claudine Christine, died and its captain, Robin Walbridge, still is missing.

"The storm this week once again reminds us of the raw power of the sea," said Papp. "For all its wonder, all its beauty, it can be incredibly dangerous and tragically unforgiving and dark. I am also reminded of the brave and selfless men and women who go into that environment, willingly, with no thought other than to save those in peril on the sea."

The 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter, which will be based in Miami, is one of the fastest in the fleet and will be used for search and rescue, drug interdiction and migrant operations, among other missions.

Ahlstrom said having a cutter named for her brother ensures his memory never will die.

"So many generations are going to know about my brother and what he did, just by serving on that boat," she said. "Their children and grandchildren will say, 'Grandpa, why was your boat named the William Flores?' And they will tell them."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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