Navy enlisted the help of San Diego firefighters in the investigation of the USS Bonhomme Richard Blaze


USS Bonhomme Richard in flames at Naval Base San Diego in July 2020. Navy photo

For anyone around San Diego Bay on July 12 of last year, the massive explosions and the plume of black smoke darkening the sky were widely heard and seen.

The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard was on fire at the dock, as explosions ravaged 11 of its 14 decks; it was a hell that reached 1,200 degrees.

The ship was being converted to accommodate the F-35B stealth fighter, as part of the Navy’s plan to keep its new warplanes stationed in the far Pacific.

What happened that day is detailed, in part, from hundreds of emails obtained under the California Public Records Act. These documents offer a partial window on exchanges San Diego Fire Department had with the Navy in their joint effort to determine the cause and origin of hell on the 844-foot ship.

Documents released under the CPRA only show the end of the San Diego Fire-Rescue investigation. The Navy side would require an access to information request and given the nature of the incident and how the Navy responds to JTF requests, its side of these discussions may never be known.

The expedition sheets reveal that the San Diego Fire-Rescue threw everything it had on the fire, but in the end the battle was lost. The fire was first fought in the lower decks where there was extensive damage. The much more costly damage involved the flight deck, the ship’s mast and the bridge structure where all communications and radar equipment are located.

Emails from firefighters show 15 Navy intelligence personnel were involved in investigating the cause of the fire with the agency and early reports indicated arson was suspected. Earlier press reports indicated that a sailor was being interviewed about the blaze, but no further information was provided. Requests for more details on the fire, its cause and the results of any findings have been sent to Naval Intelligence but so far no response has been received.

The detailed incident report shows that the call for help arrived at 8:51 a.m. and the first engine arrived within eight minutes. Five more engines were dispatched within five minutes of the first alert.

In the hours that followed, waves of firefighters and equipment arrived. It will take four days before the fire is completely extinguished. And that would be four months before Naval intelligence services would allow San Diego Fire-Rescue to recover its equipment from the fifth level of the ship, which appears to be the source of the fire.

In the months that followed, there was a series of meetings between the two agencies, as indicated in their communications.

The documents include a 79-page San Diego Fire-Rescue incident log showing significant personnel and equipment movements. The injured who were taken by ambulance included 17 firefighters from San Diego, one from Coronado Fire, a federal firefighter and 21 Navy personnel. The main injuries were concussions and dehydration.

The Navy seemed particularly interested in the actions of crews arriving early from San Diego. Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Ester told his staff that the Navy asked, “Did Engine 7 put water on the fire?” The firefighters said yes to the Navy. “It was from the side entry point on the BHR (sorry, I don’t know the correct terminology),” Ester said. “I was told it looked like the fire was under the bridge and ignited materials on the bridge above, and that’s what our crews were fighting against.”

The deputy chief says it’s “doubtful that this is what we call the ‘siege’ of the fire, but they were engaged and got off the ship during this time.” According to the incident log, Engine 7 was the second vehicle from San Diego to dock.

The Navy also wanted to hear from the San Diego firefighters who approached the flames. They wrote: “We would like to try to get feedback from the first member of the pipe team to help us understand the details of the situation on the ship based on what was seen firsthand by the launcher. “

The emails refer to the Navy’s double investigation into the fire. One is a security screening that remains private so that witnesses can speak out without fear of reprisal. The second is an administrative inquiry that will be “available for the public to debate, including what we need to do to resolve any systemic issues we may have,” said Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday.

He indicated in comments to Defense News serious concerns about the readiness of naval personnel to fight the fire aboard the vessel. “We have to follow the facts, we have to be honest with ourselves and we have to deal with it,” he told Defense News.

Chief Ester told fire department staff that the Navy was appreciative of their service’s role in the investigation, saying they “cannot overstate how much it has greatly improved our understanding of how things have happened so far “.

With 60 percent of the ship ruined, Bonhomme Richard’s fate is decided. The Navy will bite the bullet and demolish the ship at a cost of $ 30 million, considered a bargain compared to other options. The Navy’s director of ship maintenance said restoring the ship would cost between $ 2.5 billion and $ 3.2 billion and take five to seven years.

JW August is a San Diego-based digital and broadcast journalist.

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