Coast Guard disaster still shrouded in questions

Seaman Apprentice Mark Gatz, lookout on the US Coast Guard buoy tender Blackthorn Jan. 28, testified that he was horrified to see the black hull of the oil tanker SS Capricorn looming over his ship's port (left) bow. Within seconds , the two ships collided, and Mr. Gatz was fighting for his life as the Blackthorn quickly rolled over and sank near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Twenty-three members of the tender's 50-man crew perished; it was the Coast Guard's worst peacetime disaster.

After three weeks of hearings, members of the marine board of inquiry convened to investigate the incident said they had little more idea who was at fault that night than did Seaman Gatz as he clung to a piece of floating debris.

Monitor contributor Gil Klein reports that the captain and pilot of the 586 -foot Capricorn maintain the 180-foot Blackthorn missed a dogleg turn in the channel and steamed right into the tanker's path. The skipper and deck officers aboard the Blackthorn insist they were making the dogleg turn properly but the Capricorn turned into them.

One thing the board believes it has determined is the bizarre manner in which the Blackthorn sank. When the ship was raised from the bottom Feb. 19 -- enabling rescuers to find the bodies of the last of the missing crewmen -- little damage was found below the waterline. What apparently sank the tender so quickly was the Capricorn's massive anchor, which became embedded in the buoy tender's hull and flipped the smaller ship over until water gushed in and sank it.

The board is counting on some kind of physical evidence to determine fault, but there isn't much, and such as there is being rapidly buried by silt.

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