ST. PETERSBURG — Jim Sepel retired from the U.S. Coast Guard a long time ago, but he still feels like the captain of the men who died 34 years ago when his ship, the Blackthorn, collided with an oil tanker and sank into Tampa Bay.
“There are dark days. There are long nights. There are sleepless nights, because you never forget it,” said Sepel, 68, who traveled from Juneau, Alaska, with his wife, Joyce, to attend the annual memorial service Tuesday at a park north of the Sunshine Skyway.
Sepel has come alone to a few of these memorials over the years, held in Blackthorn Park, a serene, shaded tract along the bay off of Interstate 275.
The accident that killed 23 men on Jan. 28, 1980, happened about 2 miles south of Blackthorn Park in a channel that leads to the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 200 guardsmen and community members joined Sepel, other survivors and their families at the memorial.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. spoke at length about how the tragedy, still the biggest peacetime loss in the guard’s history, radically changed everything from navigational training to ship maintenance.
“As terrible as the loss of Blackthorn was, the real tragedy would be to simply mourn our shipmates and continue on as before, failing to listen and learn the lessons they have to teach us,” Papp said.
It was about 8 p.m. when the 180-foot Blackthorn collided almost head-on with the 605-foot oil tanker Capricorn. In the crash, the Capricorn’s 7-ton anchor tore into the Blackthorn’s hull. When the anchor line pulled taut, it caused the Blackthorn to capsize.
The ship went down in 10 minutes in 40 feet of water. Nearly half the crew died, many of them trapped inside.
The Coast Guard would blame the accident on an inexperienced junior officer being put in control of the ship while navigating a heavily-trafficked and unfamiliar channel.
Sepel remembers going to the morgue one day after the accident to identify six of the bodies rescuers had immediately recovered.
“I’m still the captain in my mind and I come here and see some of the survivors and they feel the same way,” Sepel said.
“They were the best crew I ever had.”
On Tuesday, 23 Coast Guard seamen left formation one by one to lay a single rose for each of the dead before a granite monument that lists their names.
Their vessel, a high-speed cutter called the William Flores, was recently commissioned in honor of a 19-year-old crewman who died after he stayed aboard the sinking Blackthorn to get life vests and help others inside.
Patricia Sarna, the mother of young Blackthorn Ensign Frank Sarna, helped lay a wreath among the many contributed by a dozen local community groups.
“I look around and I see all these guys in uniform and I want to find mine in there,” Sarna said after the ceremony. “The last time I saw him he looked just like all these others, still 23, still young in our eyes.”
The commandant recalled the Blackthorn sinking as a “seminal” moment in his early career in the Coast Guard.
In the past three decades, standards have been raised for navigation training and communication protocols have been overhauled, he said. Ships are inspected meticulously for safety.
“They became the product of all the things we did to ensure we’d never have to build another memorial like this,” Papp said.
Sepel has spent his time auditing cruise ships for safety, and the governor appointed him to the Alaska Boating Safety Advisory Council, which he chairs.
He traveled to Florida last year with his wife to attend the commissioning of the William Flores. It was then that he began to feel a renewed connection with fellow Coast Guard crewmen coming out of long held feelings of “survivor guilt.”
While Sepel is still haunted by the memories, others who were there that night remember him for his devotion to his crew. Edward Morris, part of a Navy rescue team that responded to the crash, remembers Sepel spending all night getting his men dry clothes, food and attending to their needs.
“He was worried about his men. I’ll never forget that,” said Morris, who attends the memorial each year. “He stood by his men and he did everything he could.”