Veterans

40 years after a heroic Coast Guardsman died in a collision, his statue joins underwater veterans memorial

The U.S. Coast Guard has unveiled a new statue at U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg to be included in the nation’s first underwater veterans’ memorial off the coast of Clearwater, Florida.

The latest addition honors Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores, who died on duty 40 years ago this week, when Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn and tanker Capricorn collided near Tampa Bay.

Twenty-two others also died in the accident, which is described as “the worst peacetime disaster in Coast Guard history.”

“Our family is honored to see my brother become part of such an iconic memorial,” said Sam Flores at the unveiling ceremony. “It was William’s nature to help others. We are all very proud of him and grateful to know his story will continue to inspire others for generations to come.”

Sam Flores, brother of the late Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores, speaks at an unveiling ceremony for his brother's statue at U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. (Courtesy of Preston Rudie)
Sam Flores, brother of the late Seaman Apprentice William R. Flores, speaks at an unveiling ceremony for his brother's statue at U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. (Courtesy of Preston Rudie)

During the 1980 collision, Flores selflessly stayed on board to help free survivors, going so far as using “his own belt to strap open the lifejacket locker door, allowing additional lifejackets to float to the surface,” according to a release.

“Flores sacrificed his own life to save others, demonstrating extraordinary courage, bias for action, and devotion to duty, especially noteworthy given his limited shipboard experience,” said Sector Commander Captain Matthew Thompson. “There is no doubt that he belongs in the Circle of Heroes.”

Twenty years after his death in 2000, Flores was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, which is awarded to service members who “performed a voluntary act of heroism in the face of great personal danger” not in combat.

According to the medal citation, “even after most of the crewmembers abandoned ship, Seaman Apprentice Flores, with complete disregard for his own safety, remained on the inverted hull to assist trapped shipmates and provide aid and comfort to injured and disoriented shipmates.”

Flores’ statue is the 13th addition to the Circle of Heroes at Veteran’s Reef, an underwater, diver-friendly veterans memorial that opened in August 2019. In the end, the 100-foot circle, which is located 10-miles into the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of 40-feet, will feature 24, six-foot-tall concrete statues.

“The memorial serves as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and trauma” while providing “an artificial reef to help sustain marine life,” according to the nonprofit Brighter Future Florida, which has been an advocate for the project.

The first dozen statues, lowered into the water in July, feature generic service members, such as the Army Nurse, Navy Sailor, Air Force Pilot, and Marine in Dress Blues statues. The final dozen, of which the Flores statue is the first, will be custom-made.

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