Sailors didn’t know what to do in USS Bonhomme Richard fire, Navy probe finds

When a fire broke out aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, its sailors did not know how to react and its leaders didn’t take control, a Navy investigation found.

The 400-page report, officially released on Wednesday, found that 36 individuals, including the ship’s commander and five admirals, were responsible for numerous errors and breakdowns that followed after the vessel was purposely set on fire while it sat pier-side in San Diego.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” the report said.

Once the blaze started, “the response effort was placed in the hands of inadequately trained and drilled personnel from a disparate set of uncoordinated organizations that had not fully exercised together and were unfamiliar with basic issues to include the roles and responsibilities of the various responding entities,” the document notes.

“Overall, this command investigation concluded that the loss of the ship was clearly preventable, and this is unacceptable,” Naval Operations Vice Chief Adm. Bill Lescher told reporters on Wednesday.  

The ship was docked at Naval Base San Diego for maintenance when the fire began on July 12 of last year. It burned for more than four days, injuring 63 people, including 40 sailors and 23 civilians, and rendering the ship unsalvageable.

The blaze was started in the Lower V space — which included such equipment as plywood pallets and CO2 bottles — but investigators found that there was confusion early on as to where it was and how to fight it.

A junior sailor who walked through the ship following her watch around 8:10 a.m. noticed a “hazy, white fog” but didn’t report it “because she did not smell smoke.”

But once several others noticed the smoke shortly thereafter, communication faltered and no one established command and control of the situation.

Two firefighting teams eventually attempted to find a usable fire hose, but many were missing or cut and had not been repaired through routine maintenance.

Flame retardant was finally used nearly an hour into the blaze, but the team had to retreat after a few minutes and was not replaced.

Making matters worse, firefighters didn’t pour water onto the fire until two hours after it began, and for the first three hours, the ship’s senior officers did not try to integrate civilian firefighters with its crews.

After the disaster, the investigation found that Bonhomme Richard Capt. Gregory Thoroman “created an environment of poor training, maintenance, and operational standards that led directly to the loss of the ship,” while the second in command, Capt. Michael Ray, was also responsible, as he was meant to maintain crew readiness through drills and exercises.

It was also found that the ship’s sailors were woefully lacking in their firefighting drills. The crew had failed to administer flame-fighting chemicals in 14 consecutive drills prior to the blaze.

Following the report’s release, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the incident a “massive failure” and said the Navy “must take immediate and comprehensive corrective actions,” to prevent another such disaster.

“As China increasingly threatens the Indo-Pacific, we certainly can’t afford to lose a large warship from our fleet. I expect the Navy to identify and implement the actions necessary to repair these readiness and leadership gaps,” Inhofe said in a statement.

And Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district includes a major shipyard for Navy warships, called the missteps around the fire a “faceplant” for the service.

“Our sailors are trained to combat fires with a sense of urgency, and regrettably, this sense of urgency was not present in the early hours of the blaze,” Wittman said in a statement. “This was a $3.5B loss, one that came as the Navy faces competing pressures from a resurgent China and a restrictive budget. This isn’t just one step backwards — this is a faceplant.”

The Navy commissioned the Bonhomme Richard in 1998 for $750 million — about $1.2 billion by today’s standards — though officials estimated it would cost more than double that to repair at $2.5 billion.

The service deemed such a salvage a wash and had the ship decommissioned in November and towed away to be dismantled in April.

The Navy in July brought charges against Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays for his part in the fire.

U.S. Pacific Fleet head Adm. Samuel Paparo has yet to decide whether any other sailor will be relieved of command or face other punishment, but “no disciplinary or administrative options have been taken off the table,” Lescher said.

Tags Jim Inhofe Rob Wittman USS Bonhomme Richard
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