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Sailors’ ‘inability’ to put out arson fire allowed warship’s destruction, Navy says

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)
October 20, 2021

A Navy report published this week on the USS Bonhomme Richard arson fire response found failures including inadequate firefighting training that allowed the arson fire to worsen, damaging the ship beyond repair.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” the 434-page report, overseen by U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, states.

The fire on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) burned for days, resulting in damages that would have cost $3 billion to repair had the Navy not chosen to scrap the ship. 63 people were injured in the blaze, including 40 Navy personnel and 23 civilians.

In July, the U.S. Navy announced arson charges against an unnamed U.S. Navy sailor. The San Diego Union-Tribune subsequently reported the sailor was identified as 20-year-old Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, a sailor who was assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard after dropping out of the U.S. Navy SEAL’s Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S).

While the Navy has charged a sailor with arson, the newly released report lists three dozen officers and sailors whose individual failings led or contributed to the fire growing out of control.

“In the 19 months executing the ship’s maintenance availability, repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response,” the Navy report states.

In one example of the unprepared state of the crew, the report notes the Command Duty Officer (CDO) who oversaw the initial response to the fire was on his first day on that duty assignment when the fire broke out and lacked the requisite experience to deal with such a problem. At least 10 minutes had elapsed after smoke from the fire was first detected and the initial firefighting response began.

The report states the ship’s firefighting readiness was “marked by a
pattern of failed drills, minimal crew participation, an absence of basic knowledge on firefighting in an industrial environment, and unfamiliarity on how to integrate supporting civilian firefighters.”

The report also found combustible materials were left all over the ship and 87 percent of the ship’s fire stations were in “inactive equipment maintenance status” at the time the fire broke out on July 12, 2020.

The report states “there was a lack of urgency,” in the initial response to the fire.

“When initial responders from Ship’s Force descended into Lower V, no one shared the same understanding of what firefighting capability was online, contributing to their failure to apply agent to the fire or set fire boundaries, which enabled smoke and heat to intensify,” the report states.

While the fire began sometime shortly after 8:00 a.m. PST on July 12, the report states firefighting foam dispensing system remained accessible at least until 10:00 a.m. but was never used. No discussion about using the firefighting foam system occurred until more than two hours after the fire started.

“While it was accessible until at least 1000 that day, the button was never pushed and no member of the crew interviewed considered this action or had specific knowledge as to the location of the button or its function,” the report states.

Of the 36 individuals faulted in the report, the Associated Press reported 17 were cited for failures that “directly” led to losing the ship, while 17 more were cited for failures that “contributed” to losing the ship. Two more sailors were faulted for not effectively helping in the firefighting effort.

The report names Vice Adm. Richard Brown, the three-star admiral who lead Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet during the fire; Rear Adm. Scott Brown, the fleet maintenance officer for the Pacific Fleet; Rear Adm. William Greene, the fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command; Rear. Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the commander of the regional maintenance center; Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, the commander of Navy Region Southwest; Capt. Mark Nieswiadomy, the commander of Naval Base San Diego; and Capt. Tony Rodriguez, the commander of Amphibious Squadron 5, as all having “contributed” to the loss of the ship.

Nine of the 36 individuals cited for failures were civilians.

“The loss of this ship was completely preventable,” Adm. Bill Lescher said Wednesday in a statement reported by the Washington Post. “And the Navy is executing a deliberative process that includes taking appropriate accountability actions with respect to personnel assigned to Bonhomme Richard and the shore commands designed to support the ship while moored at Naval Base San Diego.”