A Navy report concluded that commanders, crew members, and others were responsible for the July 2020 arson attack that resulted in the destruction of the USS Bonhomme Rich Richard. It called the five-day fire in San Diego preventable, and unacceptable.
One sailor was charged with lighting the fire. However, The Associated Press obtained a more than 400-page report that lists the failures of three dozen officers or sailors who either contributed to or directly caused the ship’s destruction. These findings revealed widespread failures in training coordination, communication, fire readiness, equipment maintenance, and overall command and management.
“Although the fire started by arson, the ship was destroyed due to inability to extinguish it,” the report stated. It concluded that repeated failures by an “inadequately trained crew” resulted in “an ineffective fire response.”
The report criticized commanders of the amphibious attack ship for their poor oversight and stated that the main firefighting foam system was not used due to it not being maintained properly and crew members not knowing how to use it. It is expected that the report will be published Wednesday.
Officials from the U.S. Navy stated Tuesday that, while sea crews meet high standards for firefighting, these skills decrease when ships enter maintenance periods. At the time of the fire, the Bonhomme Richard was in maintenance.
Maintenence involves more people and organizations, including contractors. Repairs often involve chemicals and equipment that pose different hazards and presents new challenges.
According to the report, the ship was in disarray with combustible material scattered around and improperly stored. The report stated that maintenance reports had been falsified and that 87% were not inspected or had equipment problems.
The report also revealed that crew members did not ring the bells to notify sailors about a fire until after 10 minutes. The report stated that crews were unable to douse themselves in fire gear, form hose teams, and respond to the fire during those crucial minutes.
Sailors failed to push the button that activated the firefighting foam system. It was also accessible, which could have slowed down the fire’s progress. The report stated that no member of the crew was aware of its location or function and did not consider this decision.
This report lays blame on a broad range of ranks and responsibilities. It includes the now-retired three-star admiral who led Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet — Vice Admiral Richard Brown — as well as senior commanders, lower-ranking sailors, and civilian program managers. Seventeen of those cited were responsible for the loss of the ship. 17 others contributed to it. Two sailors were also criticized for failing to help the firefighter. Nine of the 36 are civilians.
Adm. William Lescher has been designated as the vice chief naval operations commander to oversee any disciplinary actions against military personnel. According to Navy officials, the process of disciplining military personnel is only beginning. Officials from the Navy stated that the main challenge to improving the discipline process will be to address the “human factor”, which includes leadership skills, as well as ensuring that all sailors down to the lowest rank understand their responsibilities and can correct them.
Officials spoke under condition of anonymity in order to discuss the report before its public release.
The report specifically referred to the failures of Vice-Adm. Brown; rear admiral Scott Brown, the fleet maintenance officers for the Pacific Fleet; rear adj. William Greene who is the fleet maintenance officer at U.S. Fleet Forces Command; and rear. Rear Adm. Bettebolivar, commander, Navy Region Southwest; Adm. Eric Ver Hage was commander of the regional maintenance centre; Capt. Capt. Tony Rodriguez, commander Amphibious Squadron 5 all “contributed” to the loss.
The ship’s top three officers, Capt. Gregory Thoroman (commanding officer); Capt. Gregory Thoroman, the commanding officer; Capt.
Thoroman’s execution of duties “created an environment of poor maintenance, training and operational standards that directly led the ship to sink,” said the report. It also stated that Ray, Hernandez, and Capt. David Hart, the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center commander, also failed to fulfill their responsibilities. This directly contributed to the loss.
Only the names of senior naval officers are included in this report. Others were only described by their rank or job.
The crew was also criticized for failing to perform drills, a lack of crew participation, a lack of basic knowledge about firefighting, and inability coordinate with civilian firefighters.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services readiness committee, stated that “the loss of USS Bonhomme Richard wasn’t an avoidable catastrophe.” He stated that he had read the report with shock and anger and would be looking into the matter closely to determine the extent of negligence and complacency.
When the fire broke out, the ship was in San Diego undergoing a $250 million two-year upgrade. Nearly 60 sailors sustained minor injuries, heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation, and were among the 115 who were aboard. In some places, temperatures reached 1,200 F. This caused melting of sections of the ship and molten metal to flow into other areas of the ship.
The Navy took the ship out of service in April because of the damage. Ryan Mays, Seaman Apprentice, was charged in August with aggravated arson as well as the willful hazarding a vessel. He denied setting the fire.
According to court documents, the blaze started in the lower storage area. Mays’ duty station had direct access to it. Investigators discovered evidence of tampering at three of the four fire stations aboard the ship, including the discovery of disconnected firehoses and high-flammable liquid near the ignition point.
The report stated that efforts to extinguish the fire were hindered by the inability of the ship’s crew, other fire departments and organizations, and not being able to communicate effectively, had not exercised together, and were not well-trained.
Vice Adm. Scott Conn wrote the report and recommended improvements. Lescher endorsed them. The Navy established a new program for fire safety assessment that includes random inspections and has taken steps towards increasing training. Officials claim that nearly 170 inspections have been completed and they are seeing positive results.
The Navy also did a historical study that looked at 15 shipyard fires in the past 12 years. The study revealed recurring patterns, including failure to adhere to fire prevention, detection, and response policies.
Navy leaders have increased the staffing and responsibilities for the Naval Safety Center to conduct audits and unannounced assessments on Navy units. Final costs are still being determined.