Investigation Blames Admirals, Training for Bonhomme Richard Fire

October 21, 2021Dustin Jones
Navy Warship Destruction

The USS Bonhomme Richard burned for more than four days. The billion-dollar warship was decommissioned by the Navy because restoring or repurposing the vessel would have cost as much as $3 billion. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge)

The Navy is holding more than 30 sailors — from junior enlisted members to admirals — responsible for failing to extinguish a fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last July. Though the fire’s cause was determined to be arson, the ship was ultimately lost because the crew was unable to contain the inferno over a five-day period, a new investigation has determined.

The results of the review were first reported by the US Naval Institute.

The investigation of the loss of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship found that a series of repeated failures, from maintenance to training and oversight, led to the crew’s inability to fend off the flames. The investigation was ordered by Adm. William Lescher, the vice chief of naval operations, and headed by Vice Adm. Scott Conn. After a multimonth review of the entire chain of command of the Bonhomme Richard in the Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet, Conn found 36 individuals, including five admirals, to be responsible for the loss of the $2 billion vessel. 

The blame for the loss of the Bonhomme Richard is far-reaching, from the sailors who failed to spot the fire to members of the Naval Sea Systems Command, the US Pacific Fleet, and other commands. In his endorsement of the investigation, Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo said the ship’s crew was ill-prepared for such a disaster, USNI reported.

Bonhomme Richard Investigation
The Bonhomme Richard, pictured on July 13, 2020, burned for five days before crews were able to control the flames. US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Hector Carrera.

“There was an absence of effective oversight that should have identified the accumulated risk and taken independent action to ensure readiness to fight a fire,” Paparo said. “Common to the failures evident in each of these broad categories was a lack of familiarity with requirements and procedural noncompliance at all levels of command.”

Additionally, Conn’s investigation found that the ship was docked for some $249 million maintenance work that the ship had needed for two years, rendering the crew inadequately ready to combat the fire after it was allegedly started by a disgruntled sailor aboard the warship.

The investigation faulted the warship’s top leaders — commanding officer Capt. Gregory Thoroman, executive officer Capt. Michael Ray, and Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez — for failing to maintain the ship’s readiness, The Associated Press reported. As the ship’s captain, Thoroman’s “execution of his duties created an environment of poor training, maintenance and operational standards that directly led to the loss of the ship,” the USNI quoted Conn as saying.

Following a similar incident of arson that led to the loss of the submarine USS Miami in 2012, the Navy adopted a number of fire prevention and fighting procedures. Those responsible for the Bonhomme Richard failed to adhere to those procedures, Conn found.

According to the USNI, Conn found that “the considerable similarities between the fire on [Bonhomme Richard] and the [Miami] fire of eight years prior are not the result of the wrong lessons being identified in 2012.” Instead, Conn said, they were the result of “failing to rigorously implement the policy changes designed to preclude recurrence.”

The Navy has charged 20-year-old Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays with aggravated arson and hazarding of a vessel. Mays, who was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard after failing to complete Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, is charged with sabotaging the ship’s firefighting equipment and starting the fire. Fellow sailors said he had told others he “hated the US Navy and the Fleet.”

Approximately 160 of the ship’s 1,000 crew members were aboard when the fire began. The blaze injured 40 sailors and 23 civilians. The Navy moved to decommission the ship after an assessment found the restoration process could exceed $3 billion and take five to seven years to complete. The Navy held a decommissioning ceremony in April at Naval Base San Diego. 

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Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones

Dustin Jones is a former senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine covering military and intelligence news. Jones served four years in the Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. He has worked as a reporter in Southwest Montana and at NPR. A New Hampshire native, Dustin currently resides in Southern California.

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