A navy warship burned as commanders argued over who was in charge

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The U.S. Navy is set to play a leading role in winning a war with China, but a breakdown in the chain of command during a 2020 ship fire shows how Navy leadership’s bias toward the inaction can render the maritime service utterly helpless during a crisis.

Seaman apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays has been charged with arson and other offenses related to a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard which burned for five days in July 2020 and caused more than $3 billion in dollars in damage, prompting the navy to scrap the ship. rather than trying to fix it.

Still, valuable time was lost in the first hours of firefighting as the chain of command was so confused that commanders refused to take charge of the emergency, retired Vice Admiral Rich said. Brown to Defense News reporter Megan Eckstein.

At the time of the fire, Brown was commander of the Naval Surface Force, US Pacific Fleet, known as SURFPAC. He told Defense News that he did not know if SURFPAC or the 3rd Fleet had operational command of the Bonhomme Richard because the ship was undergoing maintenance.

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Shortly after the fire broke out, Brown said he could see the blaze was rapidly spiraling out of control and a new chain of command needed to be established to coordinate Navy and civilian firefighters on the scene, but when his staff called the 3rd Fleet, they were told, “The ship is under maintenance, that’s not our problem,” Defense News reported.

Sailors and federal firefighters fight a fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross/US Navy)

Brown said he then tried to call the vice commander of the 3rd Fleet, Vice Admiral Scott Conn, who had refused to take command of the firefighting efforts because the ship was under maintenance, reported Defense News. Brown eventually took command of the response, and he now expects a letter of censure from Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro for contributing to the loss of the Bonhomme Richard, even though he has already been cleared by Adm . Sam Paparo, Chief of the US Pacific Fleet.

Conn led the investigation into the Bonhomme Richard fire, which revealed that the ship’s sailors were not properly trained and equipped at the time of the fire. The investigation also appears to confirm that there was confusion about the chain of command leading up to the fire.

“Ineffective oversight by the conscious commanders of various organizations allowed their subordinates to take absolute risks in preparing for the fires,” the investigation states. “A significant source of this problem was the lack of codification of the roles and responsibilities expected by each organization in their performance of oversight.”

On the morning of the fire, 87% of the ship’s fire stations “remained in idle equipment maintenance condition”, according to the survey. None of the crew attempted to use the ship’s foam sprinkler system because it had not been properly maintained and “partly because the crew was unfamiliar with the capabilities and availablity “.

The crew made several other mistakes that day, including waiting far too long to report the fire, the inquest found. Several sailors decided not to put on their firefighting gear because they felt they were not wearing the proper uniform to participate in firefighting efforts. Sailors were also not properly trained in the use of emergency breathing apparatus, leading to instances of smoke inhalation.

Smoke rises from a fire aboard the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego
Firefighting boats spray water on the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard as smoke rises from a fire aboard the ship at Naval Base San Diego, seen from Coronado, California. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

Later, power to the ship’s stern section was cut – likely because the command duty officer believed he was dealing with an electrical fire – shutting down the ship’s remaining pumps and rendering firefighting equipment unserviceable, the investigation found.

None of the firefighting systems installed on the Bonhomme Richard had been used to put out the fire when all firefighters were ordered off the ship more than two hours after the fire started. A massive explosion knocked down firefighters and sailors shortly after the ship was abandoned. Every opportunity to contain the fire had been lost.

“Once the fire started, the response effort was left to poorly trained personnel made up of a patchwork of uncoordinated organizations that had not fully exercised together and were not familiarized with basic issues to include the roles and responsibilities of different response entities,” the survey said.

Navy spokesman Rear Admiral Charles Brown said the investigation into the Bonhomme Richard fire was “thorough” and helped “to identify corrections across the fleet” to prevent fires on board.

The investigation also found Navy policies regarding who exactly was supposed to be in charge of the Bonhomme Richard when the ship caught fire were “not entirely consistent”, Rear Admiral Brown told Task & Purpose. However, the Navy viewed Third Fleet as the operational commander who was two echelons above Bonhomme Richard, he said.

“But more specifically, the Standard Naval Distribution List (SNDL), which establishes the command and control structure ashore, placed the BHR [Bonhomme Richard] as an Echelon IV command directly under SURFPAC,” said Rear Admiral Brown. “SNDL has made it clear that BHR is directly responsible and accountable to SURFPAC.”

That’s what naval commanders struggled to unravel as fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard quickly consumed the entire ship.

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