How naval failures destroyed Bonhomme Richard

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By CW4 Michael Carr, U.S. Army Watercraft Captain (Retired)

“A guy with a flag is simulating a flame, and a pitcher says … I spray you with water … and then they say … the fire is out.”

This statement by a Navy sailor is found in the recently released Navy report on the USS Bonhomme Richard fire and illustrates the number of firefighting drills performed for the crew before the The catastrophic fire, lasting five days, destroyed the ship in July 2020.

In addition to poorly executed and deficient exercises, many of the ship’s crew had not donned self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for over a year, did not know how to use or activate the training foam. of aqueous film (AFFF) or halogenated hydrocarbons (halon) firefighting systems and did not know where to locate and use emergency escape breathing apparatus (EEBA).

There was no “ship’s map” (fire fighting plan as required by the IMO SOLAS convention) available to shore-based firefighters when they arrived at Pier 2 at the base. San Diego Naval Navy to help with the fire. And there were no standpipes on the pier to provide fire extinguishing water.

As the fire aboard the 844-foot LOA, 27,000-ton, Wasp-class amphibious assault ship increased, temperatures rose to over 1,400 degrees F, melting its internal aluminum superstructure. Soon the fire engulfed almost the entire ship, permitted by chaos and confusion.

Mismatched pipe threads, lack of compatible radios and common frequencies, inability to locate fire, inability to provide extinguishing water, no SCBA refill capability, inoperative portable pumps, dead batteries in the equipment, inability to accurately report the entire crew, inability to take the correct draft readings (necessary for stability calculations), ignoring the free surface effect, and a “Leadership vacuum”. These are just a few of the issues identified in the US Navy report.

After reviewing the recently released 434-page US Navy report on the USS Bonhomme Richard fire, I am saddened by the multitude of unnecessary errors identified, as well as the realization that our vulnerabilities as army may not be threats from Russian hypersonic missiles, or North Korean nuclear bombs, but ourselves.

Our military bureaucracy has become so complicated and filled with incomprehensible manuals and flowcharts that we are now disconnected from the critical need to master the basic skills necessary to be an effective maritime professional. Fighting fires is just one of many skills that all sailors must master, in addition to marlinspike seamanship, damage control, vessel handling, stability and small boat handling.

As a Coast Guard approved basic and advanced firefighting instructor, I have led hundreds of Sailors through live fire training, attacking and extinguishing fires fueled by propane, gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation fuel, wood and electrical sources. Fighting fires requires combat skills, where the enemy (fire) is ruthless and resourceful. Temperatures above 1500 F cause flashovers, explosions, and flashes when you naively believe a fire is out. Fires will flash back and consume everything in their path. Only quick action, aggressive tactics, tenacity, expert training and experience bring success. You can’t simulate fighting a fire on board a ship, you have to fight a real fire by training yourself to grasp the skills needed to succeed in a real event.

Fighting fires requires fearless leadership, not square leadership. Boots in the field, where the rapid assessment of a situation initiates a rapid response. An incipient fire grows exponentially and, if not attacked and contained within minutes, it will quickly become a fully engaged fire, producing temperatures above 500 ° F, igniting anything in its surroundings. .

Technology has led us to believe that fires on board ships are no longer a threat. Pervasive alarms, complicated fire control systems, and distractions make fire prevention a low priority. Examination of the USS Bonhomme Richard fire report shows that the priorities were to complete repairs on time, to handle an overwhelming amount of shipyard work, with many projects in conflict. Bonhomme Richard had been in the shipyard for over a year when this fire broke out, and there was a plethora of shipyard projects, broken systems, and confused priorities. Her crew suffered from a lack of clear direction and direction.

The fires on board ships are terrifying; they are the greatest threat to a ship. Well-trained crews keep their vessels scrupulously clean, holds free of oil and grease, garbage cans emptied before they are full, electrical systems monitored, alarms checked and a constant traveling watch using their sense of sight , smell, hearing, touch and a well-honed training in detecting threats that can be remedied immediately.

The loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard is due to a fire; but the fire occurred because of the preponderance of failures within our culture to identify priorities and take care of our sailors and ships. The fire was small when an arsonist started it, and if it had been detected early, it could have been extinguished. Bonhomme Richard was lost because we lost touch with the basic skills and career guidance needed to be maritime professionals. We manage ships as if they were floating office buildings. Our leaders must reappropriate the importance of instilling the fundamental skills that define the profession of maritime professional.

Chief Michael Carr is a retired U.S. Army Naval Warrant Officer. He holds a USCG Third Mate Unlimited and 3000 GT All Oceans CG license, as well as a US Army All Oceans Watercraft license. He is a United States Navy-trained Ship Recovery Dive Officer and, prior to joining the United States Army, served in the United States Merchant Navy and the United States Coast Guard.


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