The Oklahoman

Navy probe faults many in loss of ship

Massive 5-day blaze was preventabl­e, report says

- Lolita C. Baldor

WASHINGTON – A Navy report concluded there were sweeping failures by commanders, crew members and others that fueled the July 2020 arson fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, calling the massive five-day blaze in San Diego preventabl­e and unacceptab­le.

While one sailor has been charged with setting the fire, the more than 400page report, obtained by The Associated Press, lists three dozen officers and sailors whose failings either directly led to the ship’s loss or contribute­d to it. The findings detailed widespread lapses in training, coordinati­on, communicat­ion, fire preparedne­ss, equipment maintenanc­e and overall command and control.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” the report said, concluding that “repeated failures” by an “inadequate­ly prepared crew” delivered “an ineffective fire response.”

It slammed commanders of the amphibious assault ship for poor oversight, and said the main firefighting foam system wasn’t used because it hadn’t been maintained properly and the crew didn’t know how to use it. The report was expected to be released Wednesday.

U.S. Navy officials on Tuesday said that while crews at sea consistent­ly meet high firefighting standards, those skills drop off when ships move into maintenanc­e periods. The Bonhomme Richard was undergoing maintenanc­e at the time of the fire.

During maintenanc­e there are more people and organizati­ons involved with the ship, including contractor­s. And the repairs often involve equipment and chemicals that present different hazards and challenges.

The report describes a ship in disarray, with combustibl­e materials scattered and stored improperly. It said maintenanc­e reports were falsified, and that 87% of the fire stations on board had equipment problems or had not been inspected. It also found that crew members didn’t ring the bells to alert sailors of a fire until 10 minutes after it was discovered. Those crucial minutes, the report said, caused delays in crews donning fire gear, assembling hose teams and responding to the fire.

Sailors also failed to push the button and activate the firefighting foam system, even though it was accessible and could have slowed the fire’s progress. “No member of the crew interviewe­d considered this action or had specific knowledge as to the location of the button or its function,” the report said.

The report spreads blame across a wide range of ranks and responsibi­lities, from the now retired three-star admiral who headed Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet – Vice Adm. Richard Brown – to senior commanders, lower ranking sailors and civilian program managers. Seventeen were cited for failures that “directly” led to the loss of the ship, while 17 others “contribute­d” to the loss of the ship. Two other sailors were faulted for not effectively helping the fire response.

Adm. William Lescher, the vice chief of naval operations, has designated the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet to handle any disciplina­ry actions for military members. The Navy officials said the disciplina­ry process is just beginning. One official said the key challenge in making improvemen­ts will be addressing the “human factor,” including leadership skills and ensuring that everyone down to the lowest ranking sailors understand­s their responsibi­lities, and can recognize problems and correct them.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the report ahead of its public release.

Specifically, the report said failures of Vice Adm. Brown; Rear Adm. Scott Brown, the fleet maintenanc­e officer for the Pacific Fleet; Rear Adm. William Greene, the fleet maintenanc­e officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command; Rear. Adm. Eric Ver Hage, commander of the regional maintenanc­e center; Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, commander of Navy Region Southwest; Capt. Mark Nieswiadom­y, commander of Naval Base San Diego; and Capt. Tony Rodriguez, commander of Amphibious Squadron 5, all “contribute­d to the loss of the ship.”

The report also directly faults the ship’s three top officers – Capt. Gregory Thoroman, the commanding officer; Capt. Michael Ray, the executive officer; and Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez – for not effectively ensuring the readiness and condition of the ship.

“The execution of his duties created an environmen­t of poor training, maintenanc­e and operationa­l standards that directly led to the loss of the ship,” the report said of Thoroman. And it said Ray, Hernandez and Capt. David Hart, commander of the Southwest Regional Maintenanc­e Center, also failed in their responsibi­lities, which directly led to the loss of the ship.

The report only provides names for senior naval officers. Others were described solely by their job or rank.

More broadly, the crew was slammed for “a pattern of failed drills, minimal crew participat­ion, an absence of basic knowledge on firefighting” and an inability to coordinate with civilian firefighters.

“The loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard was a completely avoidable catastroph­e,” said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommitt­ee. He said he read the report “with shock and anger,” and will look into the matter carefully to “determine the full extent of the negligence and complacenc­y that occurred.”

The ship was undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade pierside in San Diego when the fire broke out. About 115 sailors were on board, and nearly 60 were treated for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries. The failure to extinguish or contain the fire led to temperatur­es exceeding 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that flowed into other parts of the ship.

Due to the damage, the Navy decommissi­oned the ship in April. In August, Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays was charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. He has denied setting the fire.

The blaze began in the lower storage area, which Mays’ duty station had access to, according to a court document. Investigat­ors found three of four fire stations on the ship had evidence of tampering, including disconnect­ed firehoses, and highly flammable liquid was found near the ignition site.

 ?? DENIS POROY/AP, FILE ?? Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020, amid a fire on board the ship.
DENIS POROY/AP, FILE Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020, amid a fire on board the ship.

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