US Navy Charges Sailor With Setting Fire That Gutted Amphibious Assault Ship in San Diego Harbor
After a misfired rocket set off a 1967 blaze on the carrier USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors, the US Navy revised its firefighting practices, including wider training on how to fight fires, and changed its weapons storage procedures.
The US Navy has announced that a sailor will soon be charged with starting the fire that damaged the USS Bonhomme Richard beyond repair as it sat anchored in San Diego harbor last year. The blaze was the worst on board a naval vessel at peacetime in more than a century.
“On July 29, charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice were brought forth against a Navy Sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire started on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) on July 12, 2020,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesperson for the US Third Fleet, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“The sailor was a member of Bonhomme Richard’s crew at the time and is accused of starting the fire,” Robertson said. He did not give the sailor’s name.
According to the paper, a sailor was also detained by the Navy last August at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in connection with the fire, but was unclear if it was the same sailor now charged.
The fire is believed to have started in the ship’s lower decks, in a vehicle storage area used for holding ground vehicles prior to being loaded on an amphibious landing craft, but the Navy has still said very little about its genesis. It quickly spread, engulfing the ship and burning for four days before being extinguished.
No one was killed in the fire, but 63 people were injured.
According to the Navy Times, temperatures inside the ship reached 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees Celsius). The fire extensively damaged the lower levels of the ship, its mast, command island, and flight deck. The smoldering ruin was left with buckled aluminum superstructure and listing to her starboard side, still tied up at the docks.
The fire erupted just after the Bonhomme Richard had spent two years in port receiving $250 million in upgrades that would have allowed it to operate F-35B Joint Strike Fighters from its flight deck.
The Wasp-class warship, part aircraft carrier and part amphibious landing dock, was roughly the size of a World War II-era fleet carrier and could carry several dozen helicopters and vertical-takeoff-and-landing jets, as well as several thousand US Marines and their associated landing equipment.
© Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jeffrey F. YaleContractors with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) work to remove the aft mast aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6).
Contractors with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) work to remove the aft mast aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6).
In November, the Navy decided that the damage was so extensive it would cost between $2.5 and $3.2 billion and take between five and seven years to fully repair, so it elected to retire the 22-year-old warship and scrap it. A new warship of a similar class would cost just $3 billion by comparison. They also considered converting the Bonhomme Richard into a hospital ship, but found it would cost $1 billion and the same amount of time. Scrapping it, by contrast, will cost just $30 million.
The loss has put a damper on the Pentagon’s implementation of the “lightning carrier” concept, whereby its Wasp-class and America-class amphibious assault ships switched out most of their helicopters for F-35Bs and deployed effectively as additional aircraft carriers supplementing its fleet of 11 larger super carriers. Just a handful have received the special upgrades the Bonhomme Richard had, meaning the Navy is now well behind its timetable.