- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A 20-year-old disgruntled sailor is accused of starting a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, but a just-released Navy investigation found a number of training and response failures contributed to why the vessel burned for a week and led to the total loss of the ship.

The investigation found that the condition of the ship, inadequate crew training and lack of command oversight were factors in the spectacular fire that destroyed the $2 billion ship.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” Vice Adm. Scott Conn, who led the investigation, wrote in the more than 400-page report officially released Wednedsay.

The ship’s equipment degraded during a lengthy maintenance period at the San Diego naval base, including heat detection and communication equipment along with shipboard firefighting systems. Most of the ship’s fire stations weren’t in working order at the time of the fire.

The training of the crew fared no better in the report, marked by a pattern of failed drills, minimal crew participation, and an absence of basic knowledge on firefighting in an industrial environment, according to the report.

Officials at the San Diego naval base also were cited in the report for failing to ensure that civilian firefighters in the area were familiar with the Navy ships on the installation. The ship’s own internal foam sprinkling system wasn’t used, in part because of maintenance problems and the crew’s unfamiliarity with the system, Navy investigators found.

The fire broke out in the lower vehicle storage area while the ship was in the midst of a two-year maintenance period and “particularly vulnerable to fire.” More than three-quarters of the ship’s firefighting equipment were in an unknown status. In the first minutes of the blaze, sailors weren’t able to find a usable firehose near the scene.

“The nearest shipboard fire stations had cut or missing hoses that were not correct through routine maintenance checks,” according to the report.

A number of local firefighters pulled up to the pier where the ship was moored to join the battle against the fast-moving blaze. But Navy officials at the scene did not integrate the civilian fire crews with the ship’s own force. The fire continued growing until 9:30 a.m. when everyone aboard the Bonhomme Richard was told to evacuate. An hour later, firefighters also were told to withdraw from the ship. A blast rocked the ship less than five minutes after the last firefighter escaped.

“This explosion occurred after more than two hours of efforts where none of the ship’s installed firefighting systems were employed,” the report stated. “No effective action was taken by any organization involved to limit the spread of the smoke and fires.”

Despite the efforts of hundreds of individual sailors and firefighters, the fire spread throughout the ship over the next four days. In some compartments, the temperatures reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“The interior of the ship’s superstructure, made of aluminum, melted completely in such heat, converting into molten metal that flowed into the spaces below,” according to the report. “

The chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness wants an investigation into the fire apart from the Navy‘s own internal review. Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat, said the loss of the Bonhomme Richard was completely avoidable.

“Although the blaze was started by a disgusting act of arson, this was a manageable fire that consumed a multi-billion dollar asset due to a systemic failure and disregard for basic safety protocol,” Mr. Garamendi said. “Once again, an unavoidable military mishap occurred because of a low level of readiness, multiple training issues, and failures at all levels of command.”

Navy officials said they’re ready to make “urgent and necessary” changes to correct the deficiencies and related rot causes that led to the Bonhomme Richard fire, Admiral Bill Lescher, the vice chief of naval operations, said in a statement.

Rep. Rob Wittman, Virginia Republican, said there didn’t seem to be any sense of urgency on the part of ship leadership prior to the fire breaking out.

“Couple this with a negligent attitude toward cleaning, preservation and storage, degraded operability of core fire-fighting systems and insufficient resources and you lost the ship,” Mr. Wittman said. “This was a $3.5 billion loss, one that came as the Navy faces competing pressures from a resurgent China and a restrictive budget.”

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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