Yesterday marked 32 years since the sinking of Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn. Twenty-three of the Blackthorn’s 50 crewmembers lost their lives during the Coast Guard’s worst peacetime disaster, and a memorial inscribed with the names of the crewmembers that perished now stands two miles north of the accident site. Vice Adm. Robert C. Parker, Atlantic Area Commander, was at the ceremony honoring the ship’s crew. Below are his thoughts immediately following the ceremony.
Written by Vice Adm. Robert C. Parker, Atlantic Area Commander.
A tightly executed fly-by from Air Station Clearwater C-130 and HH-60s hushed the crowd.
Twenty-three souls lost.
Colors crisply presented by the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard on a splendid day.
The National Anthem, played by the Admiral Farragut Academy Band.
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer John Chassereau calls the service to order. His continued passion started by his father, also a retired master chief, is the glue that keeps this tradition appropriately in full view and is the epitome of our core values. We owe him and his father and the local chief’s mess a debt we cannot repay.
Multiple wreaths laid at the memorial by dedicated organizations and at the site by Coast Guard Cutter Alligator.
Our worst peace time loss.
Thirty-two years to the day and connections to this event still remain. Personal connections abound, including my own. I remember the disbelief I felt when I saw the message. Had to be a mistake. It wasn’t. The news got worse. And worse still. Over the years I have wondered how each of the effected lives would have turned out had this fate not befallen them. Would my classmate Frank Sarna maybe be in my privileged position instead of me? Questions that will remain forever unanswered.
A cuttermen tribute is read by Lt. Craig Allen, prospective commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter William Flores. He begins to read the names of the fallen. The bell tolls.
As I prepare to deliver my remarks the bell tolls for each member of the crew as one of 23 crew members from the soon-to-be Coast Guard Cutter William Flores places a rose on the memorial to honor the fallen. When the name of my classmate is called and the bell rings, a lump forms high in my throat. It would remain through my entire remarks. It was a fittingly moving ceremony brilliantly executed with the help of Sector St. Petersburg and countless unseen supporters.
I had visited with the few remaining families, I could feel the pride, the fellowship and the hurt that each shared in their unique way. Strong families all. The bond of shipmates is strong; that among shipmates and families that have suffered this loss is much stronger still. Throughout the Coast Guard family, stories and connections still circulate.
The tragedy underscores the hazards of putting to sea, suboptimal professional development, and underprepared response to the massive grief of our families during a time of unprecedented loss. This tragedy fundamentally changed the professionalism of our cuttermen and other communities, and rightly so.
The Coast Guard Brass Quintet plays Semper Paratus.
Thirty-two years after the event we are at an inflection point where personal attachment to the event must transition to sustained hard lessons learned. Our average enlisted member is 30 years old with eight years of service. The average officer is age 37 with 15 years of service. Only 90 of us remain on active duty today who wore Coast Guard blue the night of this shocking loss. We are guided now by better policy, preparation and rules, as well as an unwritten social contract with the American people and our extended Coast Guard family. We are motivated and inspired to be better professionals by the painful memory of our fallen shipmates. We have created and bettered the Command and Operations School that resulted from this tragedy. I am carrying on the tradition that Adm. Bob Papp honored while in my job…direct engagement with every cutter prospective commanding officer and prospective executive officer class. We are paying it forward in memory of those who can no longer make muster. It is an obligation we must all heed.
“There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of liberty and heroism.” – Alexander Hamilton
Heroes like Seaman Apprentice Billy Flores define us. At the tender age of 17 he tried unsuccessfully to gain his father’s approval to drop out of high school and join the Marines. He was successful in convincing his Dad, who had entered the Navy in 1944, to join the Coast Guard. His enthusiasm was a hallmark quality according to those with whom he served. And on that fateful chaotic night, no training or drill could have prepared him for what he faced. And face it he did. Acting unselfishly and with the kind of moral courage that many can only dream of, he saved many shipmate’s lives yet ultimately lost his own doing what he loved…helping others. His moral and ethical example will live on, embodied in the crew that will sail in the ship that will bear his name. He is one of 23…
The Coast Guard Hymn is sung, accompanied by a quintet from the Coast Guard Band.
To the surviving shipmates, families and friends: Thank you for your persistence and diligence in holding us to account properly for this loss and recognition of valiant acts in unspeakable moments. To the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess that made this solemn memorial a reality and continue to tend its site, I can only say thank you once again for keeping us steady and on course to honor our fallen. And perhaps we can repay that debt, by honoring our profession.
Amazing Grace is played by a lone piper… a drum roll starts as if from nowhere.
A 21 gun salute, executed with startling precision by the honor guard.
Taps. The lump returns to the throats of many, if not all in attendance.
Go forward. Pay it forward.
Honor our shipmates by being better at what you do.