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US Navy charges sailor with arson for $3B fire that destroyed warship USS Bonhomme Richard

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)
July 30, 2021

A U.S. Navy sailor was officially charged Thursday with starting the catastrophic fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) last year that burned for days, caused $3B in damages, 63 injuries, and resulted in the Navy’s decision to scrap the amphibious assault ship.

In an emailed statement to American Military News, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a U.S. 3rd Fleet spokesperson, said, “Charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice were brought forth against a Navy Sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire started on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) on July 12, 2020. “

Robertson said the unnamed sailor “was a member of Bonhomme Richard’s crew at the time and is accused of starting the fire.”

USNI News reported the charges against the sailor, identified as a seaman apprentice, are aggravated arson under Article 126 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and hazarding a vessel under Article 110.

The fire, which began on the USS Bonhomme Richard on July 12, 2020, resulted in a blaze that Navy sailors, Federal Fire Department and San Diego Fire Department firefighters fought for four days before it was out. Amid the firefighting efforts, 63 people were injured, including 40 Navy personnel and 23 civilians. The ship’s aircraft-carrier-style flight deck was damaged in places and many of the ship’s decks had sustained fire and water damage.

The Navy ultimately decided to scrap the ship after estimates to repair it exceeded its original construction cost. Repairing the ship would have cost more than $3 billion and five-to-seven years to complete. Repurposing the ship would have cost more than $1 billion. The ship’s original construction cost was about $761 million.

Investigators have suspected the fire may have been intentionally started since at least August of 2020.

Robertson said evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system.

Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet, is considering court-martial charges against the sailor, pending the preliminary hearing.

Robertson did not identify a potential motive for the sailor’s alleged arson.

USS Bonhomme Richard is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. The Wasp-class amphibious assault ships and the newer America-class amphibious assault ships serve a similar role to aircraft carriers, with a deck for launching helicopters and vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft.

In recent years, the U.S. Marine Corps has been testing the viability of a so-called “Lightning Carrier” concept, in which amphibious assault ships become dedicated to carrying and launching as many F-35 Lighting fighter jets as they can.

The older Wasp-class amphibious assault ships also have a well deck that supports the launching of amphibious landing craft. The newer America-class ships do away with the amphibious landing well deck, and instead dedicate more space for things like aircraft maintenance and fuel storage.