One of at least three key investigations into the devastating fire on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard is complete, the Navy said in a statement Monday, exactly one year after the blaze broke out at the ship’s berth at Naval Base San Diego.
In an emailed statement, a Navy spokesperson at the Pentagon said the command investigation is finished and under review by Navy leaders. Command investigations are administrative and often take a wide view of the circumstances surrounding military mishaps. They include timelines of events as they unfolded and seek to identify systemic issues in the Navy.
“The command investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the fire aboard the former USS Bonhomme Richard July 12, 2020, is complete,” said Lt. Andrew DeGarmo, a Navy spokesperson. “The command investigation is under review and is expected to be completed later this summer.”
A Navy criminal investigation into the cause of the blaze by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is ongoing, DeGarmo said. In August, a Defense official told the Associated Press arson was suspected in the fire.
A safety investigation was also launched into the fire.
Although Navy officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the criminal investigation, the Union-Tribune has learned that one junior sailor was placed in pretrial confinement at the Marine Corps Station Miramar Brig late last year in connection with the blaze.
In August, Navy investigators searched the sailor’s home and property as part of an arson investigation, 10 News reported at the time.
Sources familiar with the case said the sailor, who was 19 years old at the time, was briefly held in a military brig and released in November. That same month, a Navy officer discussed evidence preservation on the ship in an email to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Navy Times reported last week.
The Union-Tribune is not naming the sailor because he has not been charged with a crime.
Gary Barthel, a military lawyer based in Carlsbad who represents the sailor, said in an interview Monday that the sailor was only briefly confined and has since resumed his military duties in San Diego.
“He was initially placed in pretrial (confinement) and released,” Barthel said. “He has not been charged with any offense and is going about his Navy duty. Whatever their rationale was back then, he’s since been released and has no restrictions on him whatsoever.”
Navy officials declined to comment on the sailor.
The fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard — a 22-year-old, 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship used to land Marines and fly attack aircraft — burned for four and a half days. The ship represents one of the largest peacetime losses ever by the Navy.
At the time of the blaze, the 844-foot Bonhomme Richard was near the end of a two-year, $250 million upgrade to accommodate the F-35B fighter.
Defense officials have been eyeing the mini-aircraft carriers as a way to keep the newest-generation of fighters continually available in the Pacific, as the U.S. counters strategic threats from China.
The blaze began around 8:30 a.m. on July 12. The fire is believed to have begun in the ship’s lower vehicle-storage area, which is directly below a large well deck. Once the fire reached the cavernous, oxygen-rich well deck, it spread rapidly, eventually consuming every interior space on board above the waterline.
A dense plum of acrid black smoke billowed out of the upper decks of the warship for two days, choking nearby neighborhoods. Fire crews from other Navy ships, Navy helicopters and federal firefighters battled the blaze from the land, air and sea, drenching the steel hull of the vessel to cool the interior enough for crews to access the fire.
Damage to the ship was catastrophic — peak temperatures on board during the fire topped 1,200 degrees F, making it all but impossible for those crews to access burning spaces to extinguish the flames. At that temperature, water from fire hoses immediately turned to steam, one Navy leader said at the time.
In November, the Navy announced that although the ship was repairable, the costs were too high and it would instead be scrapped. The ship was decommissioned and towed out of San Diego in April to its final home at a Brownsville, Texas, scrap yard.
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