How a heroic Coastie sacrificed himself to save others during the service's worst peacetime tragedy

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When officials commemorate an act of heroism, or a tragedy, or both, they almost always cite the numbers.

On Monday, it was the number 40. That's how many years it's been since the Coast Guard suffered the worst peacetime tragedy in its history.

And 23: the number of lives lost aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn after it collided with a passing 605-foot oil tanker in the waters of Tampa Bay.

And, perhaps most poignantly, the number 18. That's how old Seaman Apprentice William Flores was when he heroically went down with his ship. As the Blackthorn capsized, Flores stayed aboard, throwing life jackets to his fellow seamen. He allowed even more jackets to float to escaping crew members by propping open a locker door with his own belt.

Then, the 180-foot cutter sucked Flores into the depths of Tampa Bay.

"He drowned about 15 feet away from me," remembered Jeff Huse, a survivor of the Blackthorn. "I probably floated with one of the life jackets that he tossed out."

Huse was just one of dozens of Coast Guardsmen and women who gathered Monday to celebrate Flores' heroism and to honor the lives lost. (On Tuesday's anniversary, the Coast Guard will remember the tragedy with its own event.) As local politicians and members of Flores' family looked on, Brighter Future Florida, a local nonprofit founded by former Congressman David Jolly, unveiled a concrete statue of Flores for its Circle of Heroes underwater monument off the coast of Clearwater.

One day, his group hopes to include 24 statues in total, Jolly said. For now, the number is 13. Flores' statue is the first in the monument to resemble a particular person.

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A freak set of circumstances led to catastrophe on the evening of Jan. 28, 1980. At least one of the passing Capricorn and Blackthorn ships was too close to the center of the channel near the Sunshine Skyway bridge. As the Blackthorn headed out to Galveston, Texas, and the Capricorn in toward Weedon Island, lights from a nearby cruise ship may have made it difficult for the two ships' crews to see each other until it was too late. And even once the crews did spot one another, an inexperienced Blackthorn officer failed to properly communicate with the Capricorn. All of that is according to two government reports.

Even given all of those factors, the initial collision between the two ships wasn't catastrophic. The vessels hit almost head-on, with the Blackthorn running down the port side of the much larger tanker. (No one on the Capricorn was harmed.)

It was the Capricorn's 13,500-pound anchor that sealed the Blackthorn's fate. It tore into the cutter's hull, then pulled the ship down. Water began gushing into the Blackthorn. On board, chaos. After less than ten minutes, the vessel was sunk, 23 of its crew of 50 lost.

Although some accounts of the disaster say Flores wore a life jacket himself, his body was found without one, his brother Sam Flores said. Perhaps he gave his own life preserver to a colleague in need.

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Eighteen is how old Flores' nephew Bobby Flores is now. He doesn't remember hearing very much about Uncle Billy growing up, even though his family hung a picture of him on the wall.

Before Monday's ceremony, Bobby Flores read about the Blackthorn on Wikipedia. He talked with his family about the account of Larry Clutter, who served with his uncle on the Blackthorn. For years after the accident, Clutter pushed for the Coast Guard to honor Flores.

In 2000, the service heeded Clutter's calls, awarding William Flores posthumously with the Coast Guard Medal, the force's highest peacetime service award. And in 2012, the Coast Guard dubbed a vessel the Coast Guard Cutter William Flores. It's still in service today.

Bobby Flores knows how deep service runs in his family. His grandfather, Robert, and uncle, Sam, served in the Navy. His father, Richard, served in the Air Force. Uncle Billy served in the Coast Guard. Bobby Flores plans to continue the family tradition as a future member of the Marines.

Richard Flores, one year older than Billy, has seen his son Bobby, a high school senior in Texas, grow older than his heroic brother. It's a surreal fact made stranger by Bobby and Billy's striking resemblance.

So how does Richard Flores feel about seeing his son follow in William Flores' footsteps?

"There's some anxiety when I think, 'He's going off to boot camp. He's going to come back a man,'" Richard Flores said. "But I put it in God's hands. He's going to take care of him."

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