Friday, June 18, 2010

January 28th, 1980. USCGC Blackthorn.

Yesterday, the day was beautiful, I was in Washington, DC and I had some free time. Looking around, I saw the Robert E. Lee Family mansion across the Potomac in Arlington and realized that I haven't visited Arlington Memorial Cemetery in far too long. So I went over and walked around for a bit.

As I was walking past the Lee house on my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, I happened to see three grave markers that made me stop and wonder for a moment. The three, side by side, were US Coast Guardsmen, and all three had died on January 28th, 1980, obviously in the same incident.

I did not recall any Coast Guard incident in 1980, but then I was still fairly young and not prone to paying attention to such things. I took a photo, made note of the names, and determined to research it when I got home. Here's the photo:The names are, from left to right: ETI Jerome F. Ressler, ENS Frank J. Sarna III, and EM3 Edward Sindelar III. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

When I got home, I did some research, and in the process, I learned of the destruction and loss of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn (WLB-391) on January 28, 1980, in Tampa Bay.

The Blackthorn was one of 39 180-foot Buoy Tenders commissioned in the early 1940's. The Blackthorn herself was commissioned in 1944. Many of these tenders served well into the 1990's, and I've toured the Acacia (WLB 406) several times back when it was berthed in Grand Haven, Michigan.

The Blackthorn had just left drydock on that January day in 1980 after an extensive rebuild meant to prolong it's service life. It was expected to last two decades or more but no one knew as it left the drydock that it's service life was measured in hours, not years. As it made it's way out of the bay that night, it crossed paths with the S.S. Capricorn, a 605-foot tanker. The ships collided nearly head-on, and the 13,500lb. anchor of the Capricorn sliced into the side of the buoy tender, tearing a huge hole in the vessel. Then the Capricorn's anchor chain broke free, and the weight of the anchor and chain on the side of the old buoy tender caused it to list heavily to that side. Water quickly entered the gash and the tender capsized almost immediately. 23 crewmen drowned that night, many trapped inside the hull due to their unfamiliarity with emergency drills on the ship that they were making their first cruise on. Others no doubt drowned when life rafts and other rescue gear on the cutter's deck proved defective, either because they'd been stored improperly or because they were damaged. Ironically, the life rafts and other safety gear would have failed a Coast Guard inspection that all commercial vessels are required to undergo.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated and put the blame almost entirely on the Coast Guard, citing several issues. The Coast Guard investigated and split the blame between the two ships' captains. In the end, 23 US Coast Guardsmen were still dead in the US Coast Guard's worst peacetime incident, including Jerome Ressler, Frank Sarna, and Edward Sindelar.

A very through report on the incident can be read here.

This story should serve as a reminder that our all-volunteer military members still face risks every day, even when we're not at war.


  1. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Typical of the government play the blame game.WHILE PEOPLE DIE.

  2. My uncle is William Flores. Many survivors state their survival was due to his actions that day. He also passed away but is buried near my grandparents home in Benbrook, TX. The USCG is dedicating a fleet of fast response cutters to several coasties, my uncle being one. That is taking place today in Louisiana.

    Semper Paratus!