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Reports: Arson suspected in Bonhomme Richard fire; sailor questioned

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) on fire at San Diego, California (USA), on 12 July 2020. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin Haist)
August 29, 2020

The July 12 fire that burned aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard for four days may have been an intentional act of arson, according to an unnamed defense official who spoke with the Associated Press and the New York Times.

Both the AP and the New York Times have reported, based on an unnamed official’s comments, that the fire that burned on the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ship is being investigated as an intentional act. Both outlets also reported a Navy sailor has been questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

ABC10 also reported unnamed sources said investigators have served multiple search warrants at a sailor’s home and property. The sailor has not been detained and his name and rank have not been disclosed. No motive has been identified for the alleged arson.

In a public comment provided to various media sources, Navy spokesman Lt. Tim Pietrack said, “The Navy will not comment on an ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the investigative process and all those involved. We have nothing to announce at this time.”

About 160 sailors and officers were on board the Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) when the fires broke out. The fire on the ship reportedly spread quickly and at least two explosions were reported as the fire spread up the ship’s elevator shaft and exhaust stacks. At least 59 people, including 36 Navy personnel and 23 civilians, were injured as the fire spread aboard the ship and in subsequent efforts to control the blaze. Most of the injuries were minor, and many consisted of heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

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Numerous local and federal firefighting resources worked the ship fire from the ground, firefighting boats and aerial water drops. The ship began to list to one side as a result of the weight of water settling in the ship after days of water drops over the ship.

The Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-Class amphibious assault ship, was designed to act as a carrier for helicopters and landing craft, to support amphibious landing missions. According to Defense News, the Bonhomme Richard was being upgraded to accommodate F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter jets, as part of the Navy’s “lightning carrier” concept.

The “lightning carrier” concept entails converting amphibious assault ships, like the Bonhomme Richard, into a light carrier that can fit up to 20 F-35Bs, which are the short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter. The July fire happened as the ship was nearing the end of an estimated $250 million two-year upgrade process to convert the assault ship into such a “lightning carrier.”

Defense analysts told the AP that if the ship cannot be repaired, it could cost the Navy up to $4 billion to replace.

After the fires were extinguished, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, the commander of the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 3, expressed optimism that the ship may still be salvaged. 

“The survivability of the ship is there — it’s survivable,” Sobeck said. “It’s in stable condition all the way through.”