Pier-side fire destroys the Bonhomme Richard
- 3-star admiral sanctioned
- Ship and crew woefully unprepared
- San Diego Fire packs up and goes home
- The missed opportunity
In July 2020, the Bonhomme Richard, a U.S. Navy amphibious assault warship, suffered a catastrophic fire while docked in San Diego; the cause is reputedly arson.
Ship preparedness, firefighting efforts and incident command are the subject of a Navy scandal over the multi-billion dollar loss with a senior admiral being censored.
The New York Times reports that “the [Navy] investigation cited inadequate training, improper oversight and a failure to properly maintain equipment as reasons for the total loss of the ship.”
The former commander, executive officer and senior enlisted member received letters of reprimand.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told retired Admiral Richard Brown, Naval Surface Force for the U.S. Pacific Fleet leader, “you failed to identify and mitigate against the lack of oversight that contributed to the loss of the ship.”
Admiral Brown tells a different story though it may not matter much in the end.
The 434-page Navy Investigative report unwittingly reveals a complex parallel universe.
The question “who’s in charge” takes on a whole new meaning.
For the rest of the world “availability” means you are available for assignment, in the Navy it means you are not. Availability is the term used to describe a ship in maintenance status, as in not available, an apparent contradiction.
As most organizations strive for simplicity, especially when prompt action is required, how’s this for a guidance document name:
(No, I didn’t fall asleep on the keyboard.)
And the ship’s personnel are no longer a “crew” but a “force” as in the “force be with you.”
To make matters worse (could they be?) there are overlapping command chains when a vessel is laid up for repair with confusion reigning supreme in terms of accountability, readiness and response.
Shipboard firefighting assets were in a deplorable state with personnel purposely failing to document issues; on the day of the fire the status of the automatic systems was unknown and some sailors did not know how to operate them anyway.
- “the crew had failed to meet the time standard for applying firefighting agent on the seat of the fire on 14 consecutive occasions leading up to 12 July 2020.”
- “87% of the firefighting stations were out of service”
- “Ineffective oversight by the cognizant Commanders across various organizations permitted their subordinates to take unmitigated risk in fire preparedness”
The fire started shortly after an 8:00 AM shift change and ten minutes was frittered away before an emergency was called.
(The Federal fire department was actually notified by a port communications center who overheard radio chatter, no one knows how long it would have taken otherwise.)
Firefighting stations in the area of the fire, known as Lower V, were out of service and ship’s crew were stymied in their efforts to put water on the fire.
Federal fire departments were the first off-ship assets called in followed by a third-alarm response from the San Diego Fire Department (SDFD.)
The Federals deployed their own hoselines but used an access point far from the fire further delaying a direct attack.
It was SDFD who finally determined the correct access point but the fire they encountered was just an extension of the main one raging a deck below.
It was slightly less than two hours after ignition when a SDFD engine crew actually put water on the fire for the first time; by then it was much too late.
They backed out onto the pier and minutes later a large interior explosion knocked pier-side personnel off their feet and sent debris flying.
With the fire out of control and an eventually successful personnel accountability check of both FD and ship’s crew complete, SDFD declined to re-enter the vessel and departed the incident.
(SDFD policy does not allow entry under such circumstances when there is no life safety threat other than to firefighters; this ethic seemed to confound both Navy personnel and Federal firefighters.)
The fire burned for four days leaving a wrecked hulk.
The Navy report, a tour-de-force of “Naval Gazing” all but ignores the missed opportunity to contain the fire, devoting just a sentence or two to the subject.
Nearby vessels, the Russell and the Fitzgerald, rapidly assembled emergency response teams totaling 19 members and arrived at the Bonhomme Richard before 9AM.
They were never put to work.
While a constant criticism in the report is the lack of ship familiarity by shore-based firefighters, the Navy failed to use the best resource which was right at hand; nineteen sailors is three beefed-up hoseline teams to stop the spread of the fire.
All the spilled ink about what the Feds or SDFD did or didn’t do obscures the fact that the best hope for controlling the Bonhomme Richard fire and others like it is the mutual aid supplied by vessels nearby with trained and experienced Naval personnel.
But in the end, the fault lies with a commanding officer and leadership team under whose watch the stage was set for disaster and senior leaders who actually thought you could just show up on game day and dither about a chain of command when the die was already firmly cast.