Why didn’t the Navy see the fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard coming?


When the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard caught on fire last summer in an interview, then burned for almost a week, those inside and outside of the fleet wondered how such a loss of a warship in times of peace could come.

But according to one Review of the great navy ship fires published last week, the threat of such a disaster has been brewing for years in the public and private shipyards of the maritime service.

The said “Major fires review” was published in conjunction with the Navy command investigation in the fire of July 12, 2020 aboard the Bonhomme Richard, which found that the Navy had failed at all levels to fight the blaze after a young sailor allegedly started it.

The Fire Review looked at 15 “major shipboard fire occurrences” over the past 12 years and found a series of troubling commonalities.

Aside from the 2012 fire that destroyed the Miami submarine and led to service-wide reforms that were never properly followed, the review focused on the fires aboard aircraft carriers. , amphibians, cruisers, destroyers, mine hunters and landing ships.

The report does not name the vessels studied.

Eleven of the 15 fires occurred outside of the normal working day when the crew was on duty or on reduced staff.

“The downsizing at the time of the occurrence contributed to dysfunctional command and control, delayed detection and response, and increased severity of almost all fires that occurred outside of normal working hours. “, says the review.

The review found that four of the 15 fires were “directly attributable to improper hot work” carried out by workers in public and private shipyards, and six occurrences were attributable to the vessel’s crew not maintaining or did not properly store hazardous and combustible materials.

The Miami fire was later found to have been caused by arson, while two other events had suspicious origins and one foul play was not ruled out.

Two of the fires had unknown origins.

The review also found that lessons learned from ship fires are not being “effectively harvested” or disseminated so that the fleet can learn from its mistakes.

The report notes a lack of respect for the fire hazards that abound during periods of shipyard maintenance, as well as a propensity not to keep spaces clean or to properly store hazardous materials.

He found that the ground commanders were taking too many risks to complete the mission and failing to alert their superiors of the problems, a finding echoed in the comprehensive review that followed two fatal ship collisions in 2017.

The fire review also notes a drop in watch standards and failures to address these issues.

He found that crews were better prepared to fight fires at sea than in yards, and notes that a lack of training results in careless command and control when a fire breaks out, a problem that has contributed to the fact that Bonhomme Richard burns for so long. .

“Historical analysis of the 15 events revealed that ships continue to be less than fully prepared for the maintenance environment, the phase at which the risk of fire is highest,” the review states. “This risk increases with the duration of availability, and particularly during unplanned availability extensions, as the crew moves away from their most recent base phase certification.”

The examination also revealed issues that extend beyond a ship’s deck plates.

He specifies that the “overwhelming majority” of piers and berths used for maintenance on Navy bases do not meet the requirements codified in the reforms undertaken in the wake of the Miami fire, which drove the boat to early retirement.

The report does not name the 15 fires examined, but in recent years there have been major fires aboard the guided-missile destroyer Oscar Austin, the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, and the aircraft carrier George Washington.

Despite the reforms implemented after the Miami fire, the review found that “ships in the event of an accident were not fully prepared for the maintenance environment, the very phase in which the risk of fire was the highest “.

Regarding the origins of Hell, the Navy tasked Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays with starting the Bonhomme Richard fire.

The U.S. 3rd Fleet has yet to release its indictment, but said a Section 32 hearing to determine whether its case will go to trial is scheduled for next month.

Among the threats to vessels under maintenance, the review cites the “significant and largely unmitigated threat from arson and other acts of gross negligence, such as reckless smoking”,

“At least three of the fourteen fires were the result of arson or had suspicious origins,” the review said. “This insider threat represents a critical danger and requires a formalized and diligent approach.”

The on-site studies also revealed problems with shipyard contractors who are paid exorbitant amounts of taxpayer dollars to work on the ships in the yards.

Navy oversight of contractors varied by location, as did contractor standards.

“For some ships in the yards there was a contractor’s reasonable standard of cleanliness, while others had garbage, bottles of urine, rags, gloves and cigarette butts left on board each. day “, indicates the exam.

Some crew members interviewed for the review said they had taken contractors’ concerns to higher levels, but the issues would only be resolved for a short time.

“In all the private shipyards, the evaluators discovered inconsistencies in the supervision of subcontractors, and often a clear absence of supervision”, notes the review.

Among the reforms mandated, the review calls for the creation of a Naval Security Command that can serve as a clearinghouse for the oversight and enforcement of non-nuclear security.

Such a command would replace the Naval Safety Center, which critically scrutinizes for its ineffectiveness in assessing trends and overseeing implementation.

The review also calls for ensuring that maintenance pillars meet the appropriate fire protection requirements, a decision that will require ‘long-term planning and funding’, but can be mitigated in the meantime. .

Geoff is a senior Navy reporter for the Military Times. He has covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was recently a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes all kinds of advice at [email protected]