Fire ravaged warship due to “repeated failures”, report finds

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) Fire

A scathing report by the US Navy into the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020 has concluded that the loss of the ship was “completely preventable” and that there were major failures within the military chain of command that allowed the fire to destroy the warship.

The blaze broke out on the USS Bonhomme Richard on 12 July, 2020, and burned for four days. The report identifies 36 sailors, including five admirals, as having contributed to the loss of the ship.

The Navy report concluded that there were “four categories of causal factors that allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and led to an ineffective fire response: the material condition of the ship, the training and readiness of the ship’s crew, the integration between the ship and supporting shore-based firefighting organisations, and the oversight by commanders across multiple organisations”. 

The command investigation also concluded a lack of familiarity with requirements and procedural noncompliance at multiple levels of command contributed to the loss of ship.  

One sailor has been charged with aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel. A preliminary hearing for the sailor is scheduled for mid-November.

Vice chief of naval operations (VCNO), Admiral Bill Lescher says: “The loss of this ship was completely preventable,” says Lescher. “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.”

According to NBC News, the more than 400-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, lists three dozen officers and sailors whose failings either directly led to the ship’s loss or contributed to it. The findings detailed widespread lapses in training, coordination, communication, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and overall command and control.

The fire broke out on the assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, while it was moored pier side for maintenance, which began in 2018. Base and shipboard firefighters responded to the fire.

Additionally, the report recognised the “bravery, ingenuity, and resourcefulness in the actions of sailors across the San Diego waterfront and others who had a role in the response,” and identified ten meritorious performance recommendations for actions taken during the firefighting efforts.   

Alongside the Bonhomme Richard investigation results, the Navy also released the results of the Major Fires Review, ordered in January 2021 by the VCNO. A comprehensive historical review of major fires aboard US Navy ships, the Major Fires Review aimed at identifying recurring trends in the causal factors of 15 major shipboard fires over the past 12 years.  

The expansive review included 12 major findings contributing to a current state of elevated risk for ships in maintenance availabilities with seven strategic recommendations for corrective actions. 

The Major Fires Review revealed that ineffective learning, the persistence of underlying weaknesses in shipboard watchstanding standards, hazardous and combustible material stowage, and training were the primary issues contributing to a lack of enduring change and in shipboard fires.  

To address the findings of the command investigation and the Major Fires Review, the Navy established a ‘learning to action board’ to both implement the recommendations and to assess their ongoing execution over time, testing both whether the recommendations remain in effect and whether they are providing the intended effect.  

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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