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Hundreds attend ceremony honoring 23 killed in 'Blackthorn' disaster

ST. PETERSBURG — Thirty years ago Thursday, Cathi Litterell sent her kids to bed and settled down to watch TV in her Texas home.

She didn't know it but her 10-year-old Danny was still awake, listening to a radio.

Then she heard him screaming: "My daddy's dead! My daddy's dead!"

His daddy was on the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn, and news had just come over the radio that the ship had sunk in Tampa Bay.

An hour later she learned that Danny was right about the ship but wrong about his daddy.

Ron Litterell was one of the lucky 27 survivors of the biggest peacetime disaster in Coast Guard history. At 8:22 p.m., Jan. 28, 1980, the Blackthorn collided with the tanker Capricorn in the Tampa Bay shipping channel. It sank in about three minutes, killing 23 crew members.

The Litterells joined about 250 local Coast Guard members and 150 others Thursday at Blackthorn Memorial Park, near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, to honor the members who died.

Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, traveled from Washington for the ceremony, which included the reading of the names of those who lost their lives that day.

He said the disaster spurred important changes in procedures, which was one good thing to emerge from the tragedy.

The 180-foot-long Blackthorn was making a turn in the channel when it collided with the Capricorn, a 605-foot tanker with 150,000 barrels of oil for the Florida Power plant on Weedon Island. No one on the Capricorn died.

An investigation determined the vessels were too close to the channel's center.

Litterell said he wishes the survivors would talk to each other. Learning specifics of what happened to each person would be therapeutic, he said. "I never saw anybody again," he said.

He and Steve Coleman, the only other survivor at the ceremony, belong to a Blackthorn veterans Facebook group, where members share tributes and exchange information.

Back then, Coleman was 21 and single. He worked below deck the night of the tragedy.

He said he remembers hearing a warning about a minute before the ships touched: "Prepare for collision."

Coleman said he was on the mess deck when he felt the ship roll over. He escaped through a hatch, started to swim and met others in the cold water, spilled diesel fuel around them.

They "mustered together best they could" until a shrimp boat rescued them, he said.

Coleman cried as he told his story after the ceremony. His wife, Jennifer, reached for his hand to comfort him. He had not been to a service for the disaster since the 1981 dedication of the memorial.

Coleman, a high school science teacher in Rome, Ga., said no matter how many times he's told the story to family and students, it never gets easier.

"I just count my blessings," he said. "My mind's just flooded with memories — pride."

Hundreds attend ceremony honoring 23 killed in 'Blackthorn' disaster 01/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2010 11:51pm]
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