The Navy’s investigation into the Bonhomme fire is made public

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This story originally posted on Task and objective.

Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard were unsure of what to do when a fire broke out aboard their ship last year, an investigation into the catastrophic fire has revealed.

“Although the fire was started by arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” according to the inquiry, which was drafted by Vice Admiral Scott Conn, then commander of the third fleet.

The ship caught fire on July 12, 2020 and burned for five days, spreading to 11 of the ship’s 14 levels. Apprentice sailor Ryan Sawyer Mays, a member of the ship’s crew, has been charged with starting the fire that destroyed the $ 2 billion warship. He is due in court on November 7, his attorney told Task & Purpose.

But the Navy’s investigation into the blaze found the Bonhomme Richard’s crew were ill-prepared and under-trained to contain the blaze once it broke out.

“Once the fire started, the response effort was left to insufficiently trained and drawn staff from a disparate set of uncoordinated organizations that had not fully exercised together and did not know the basic issues. to include the roles and responsibilities of the different intervention entities. “, We read in the survey.

However, the investigation clearly shows that the blame for the ineffective firefighting effort begins at the top.

“Ineffective oversight by knowledgeable commanders of various organizations allowed their subordinates to take absolute risks in fire preparedness,” the investigation said. “A major source of this problem was the lack of codification of the roles and responsibilities expected by each organization in carrying out its oversight. “

Investigative team members examine a stream of solidified aluminum aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. Photo: US Navy

On the morning of the fire, 87% of Bonhomme Richard’s fire stations “remained in a state of maintenance with inactive equipment,” the investigation revealed. This hampered the crew’s initial efforts to contain the blaze.

“Because the nearest onboard fire stations had cut or missing hoses that were not corrected by routine maintenance checks, these crews were unable to locate a fire station and an existing hose. good condition and they have not adapted their strategy in light of these conditions, “the investigation revealed.

In addition, no one attempted to use the Bonhomme Richard foam sprinkler system to extinguish the fire because it had not been properly maintained and “in part because the crew was unfamiliar with the fire. capacities and availability, ”the investigation determined.

The crew was also not properly trained in the use of emergency breathing apparatus during the evacuation of the ship, which resulted in sailors suffering from smoke inhalation, according to the investigation. Most of the ship’s sailors later said they did not try to find emergency breathing apparatus during the fire because they feared they would be trapped by the fire if they had searched for the breathing apparatus. ’emergency.

The investigation also found that several sailors, including chief petty officers, decided not to don their firefighting gear because they believed they were wearing the wrong uniform at the time, according to the investigation. . This prevented these sailors from joining the fire-throwing teams who were trying to fight the blaze.

“This lack of knowledge and preparedness affected overall preparedness and response, which contributed to the spread of the fire and its inability to contain it,” the investigation revealed.

Systemic issues with the ship’s firefighting efforts became apparent shortly after the fire broke out in the ship’s lower stowage area around 8 a.m. on July 12. Findings of fact included in the Navy investigation into the fire.

About 10 minutes passed after smoke was seen rising from the lower vehicle storage area before it was reported. The investigation notes that these “precious first minutes were lost for various reasons”, as the sailors were forced to use cell phones to communicate because they lacked radios, at the decision of the officer in charge. bridge to order further investigation before making any decisive decisions. action, and because “there was a lack of urgency”. Communication was further hampered because the main circuit of Bonhomme Richard’s 1 – essentially its sound system – was not functioning in many areas of the ship.

The deck officer at the time said he initially did not make an announcement about the fire because he believed the smoke might have come from a back-up generator or another benign source, the investigation revealed. Other sailors told investigators they believed they needed to actually see the blaze before declaring an emergency.

USS Bonhomme Richard Navy Ship Fire Hangar, Upper V and Lower V Diagrams
The American figure in the survey represents various decks and compartments aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. Courtesy of the US Navy

It was almost an hour before the first firefighters were able to attempt to extinguish the blaze with water, but they were so short of air that they had to leave after a few minutes and no one replaced them, the investigation determined.

At 9.44 a.m., power to the ship’s aft section was cut off, likely because the command service officer believed the blaze was an electrical fire, the investigation found. As a result, the ship’s only remaining fire pumps were taken offline, leaving the ship’s fire hose and foam sprinkler system non-functional.

After more than two hours of firefighting efforts, during which none of the firefighting systems installed on the ship were deployed, all remaining firefighters were ordered to begin to withdraw. Less than five minutes after the last firefighter left Bonhomme Richard, a “major explosion rocked the ship, throwing debris onto the jetty and knocking firefighters and sailors down,” according to the investigation.

“Subsequent attempts to regain a foothold on board relied on ad hoc strategies, providing too few firefighters to keep up with the rate of the fire spreading,” the survey reads. . “Throughout the first day of efforts, the agent was never applied to the source of the fire, and the opportunity to do so was lost once the fire spread to- beyond the perimeter of Lower V and across the entire ship. “

It will take several more days, with further firefighting attempts, before the blaze is finally extinguished on July 16, 2020.

A separate review of major fires aboard Navy ships revealed that the service has focused on training Sailors to put out fires that occur while they are at sea and that they are fully crewed with all their officers and equipment on board, said Rear Admiral Paul Spedero Jr., head of Joint Enabling Capabilities Command, US Transportation Command.

“Where we’ve missed the opportunity, it’s the high-risk situations in the maintenance environment or in the dockside environment, where we have downsized and downtime, or we have equipment that is not available due to maintenance, or equipment that has been moved to support other maintenance during these availability, ”Spedero told reporters in a panel discussion on Wednesday.

That’s why the Major Fires Review includes recommendations on how the Navy trains sailors to control damage when their ships are undergoing maintenance, he said. Commanders have already asked sailors to go through a certification process before their ships go through a maintenance period so that they understand the risks they will face and how to manage them.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on October 20 with comments from Rear Admiral Paul Spedero Jr.


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