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A gleaming white cutter, the William Flores sat at berth as crewmembers stood solemnly at their stations. The commissioning ceremony had just begun and it was a particularly poignant one. It was also a proud moment that began with a promise made by retired Master Chief Petty Officer Alan Nations some three decades ago.
Cutter William Flores is the third in the Sentinel-class, honoring enlisted members who performed extraordinary acts of courage. This particular cutter holds a special significance for Coast Guard men and women, as well as the citizens of Tampa Bay. Many remember all too well the fateful night of Jan. 28, 1980, considered the worst peacetime loss of life for the Coast Guard.
The ship’s namesake distinguished himself as a hero following a collision between the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn and the 605-foot oil tanker Capricorn near Tampa Bay’s entrance. Flores and a shipmate steadfastly manned their station as the order to prepare for a collision was sounded. The damage was swift and significant. As the harrowing sound of tearing steel could be heard, some crewmembers found themselves in the dark, cold water.
Flores and a fellow crewmember tossed life jackets to their shipmates in hopes of saving lives. As many abandoned ship, Flores remained behind and used his belt to strap the door to the locker open so more life jackets would float to the surface as the ship was swallowed into the watery depths of Tampa Bay. Though barely a year out of boot camp and new to his cutter, Flores had quickly bonded with the crew. It is now known that Flores gave his own life jacket to a shipmate in those perilous last moments before the ship keeled over, thus placing the safety of others ahead of his.
“It is fitting that we’re here today to remember the bravery and disciplined initiative of William Flores in the face of great danger, and commission this cutter named in his honor. Hurricane Sandy continues to remind us how dangerous the sea can be and Coast Guardsmen are partnering with federal, state and local agencies during the ongoing urgent recovery efforts,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp at the commissioning. “I look forward to the accomplishments of United States Coast Guard Cutter William Flores as it enters the fleet to protect those on the sea, protect the nation against threats from the sea and protect the sea itself.”
All six Flores brothers and sisters were in attendance, joined by his nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom it is said has an interest in joining the Coast Guard one day. Five survivors of the Blackthorn tragedy also attended. Retired Chief Petty Officer David Saucedo, who recruited Flores, shared details such as Flores winning the physical fitness award in boot camp and that he was bright, motivated and eager to succeed.
Carolyn Flores Ahlstrom, the oldest sister of Flores, also serves as the ship’s sponsor.
“We were devastated by the loss of our brother and son,” she said. “But what a comfort to have the ship named for him.”
For the ship’s crew, meeting the Flores family members added a personal dimension.
“It’s a great honor,” said Chief Petty Officer Joshua Hutchinson, the ship’s engineering officer. “When you meet the Flores family it makes it that much closer to the heart.”
Blackthorn survivor and retired Chief Petty Officer Rondal Litterell sees the ship’s commissioning as a satisfying moment.
“I think it’s fantastic and well-deserved,” he said, “Billy’s a true hero.”
The commissioning was the culmination of a long journey that began with a promise made by Nations 31 years ago to Bill and Julie Flores who had recently lost their son. Nations was moved by the accounts given by Blackthorn survivors describing the brave efforts of the young Flores, and he sought to find a proper commemoration.
“It actually began at a ceremony dedicated to the crew on a miserable and wet day in Galveston,” he said. “I looked at Bob and Julie Flores and made the promise that their son would get proper recognition,” said Nations.
Nations, who says he likes seeing things done correctly, says the ceremony was surreal.
“I couldn’t be happier for the Flores family or the Coast Guard family,” he said. “Billy Flores has been recognized, and I fulfilled my promise.”
As the ceremony came to a close, and the crew began to prepare for its first mission as a full-fledged cutter, one couldn’t help but stop for a moment to consider the ship’s motto, “courage in adversity.” After all, that defines who William Flores truly was and who the crew will strive to be.