Sixty-three injured in fire aboard Navy ship; vessel’s fate unknown

Bonhomme Richard 1
USS Bonhomme Richard
The tugboats Jamie Renea and Jamie Ann spray USS Bonhomme Richard as a Navy helicopter drops water on the amphibious assault ship July 13 in San Diego.

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) sustained extensive damage from an onboard fire that started while it was tied up in San Diego, and Navy officials say it is too soon to know if the amphibious assault ship will return to service. 

Sixty-three people were injured fighting the fire, which was discovered July 12 at 0830 and burned for four days. The 40 Navy sailors and 23 civilian firefighters injured during the response underwent treatment for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, the Navy said. At least 21 were hospitalized. 

The cause and origin of the fire have not been determined. Multiple investigations are underway to identify what happened aboard the 844-foot ship. 

“The damage is extensive,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at a July 17 news conference. “There is obviously electrical damage to the ship, there is structural damage to the ship, and mechanical damage to the ship that we need to assess in much more detail before we make a final determination as to next steps.”

NAVSEA contractors
NAVSEA contractors work to remove the ship’s mast on Aug. 4 after it was determined that the fire compromised its structural integrity.

Gilday, in a post-incident email to high-ranking military counterparts, said the fire likely started six decks below the flight deck in a lower vehicle storage area before spreading “aft, forward and up.”

The email said sections of the flight deck are warped and bulging, according to multiple published reports. Eleven of the ship’s 14 decks sustained water damage or fire damage. 

A spokesman for Gilday did not respond to Professional Mariner’s request for a copy of the email obtained by other news agencies. 

“Damage assessments are ongoing,” Navy spokesman Lt. Ryan Slattery said. “Due to the size of the ship and extent of the damage, the initial assessments are expected to take several weeks to complete. The team’s findings will allow the Navy to make informed decisions regarding Bonhomme Richard’s future.”

Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) started work in early August to remove the ship’s fire-damaged aft mast. Slattery said the decision to remove the mast came “out of abundance of caution.” Crews performed the work using cranes on floating barges positioned alongside the ship. 

USS Bonhomme Richard is one of eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships built by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. The ships are smaller than aircraft carriers but can deploy assets through the air and water. The Navy commissioned USS Bonhomme Richard in 1998 and its normal crew size is about 1,000. 

The ship was pierside at Naval Base San Diego undergoing routine maintenance and upgrades when the fire started. There were about 160 sailors on board at the time. Gilday said wind contributed to the fire’s spread throughout the ship. Flames traveled through elevator shafts and exhaust stacks into the superstructure. Multiple explosions shook the vessel. 

Sailors with the ship’s company initially responded to fight the fire before naval base crews were called in. By evening, sailors and federal firefighters were dispensing foam onto the flames, which were fueled by debris and materials such as office equipment and clothing in the ship’s internal spaces.

Temperatures inside the warship reached 1,200 degrees during the response. At least 400 firefighters took part in the effort. The ship developed a list during firefighting, although authorities described it as stable after the flames were extinguished.

Foss Maritime’s Jamie Ann and Centerline Logistics’ Jamie Renea cooled the ship’s hull for extended periods during the response. Helicopters conducted 1,500 water drops on the ship. 

The Navy is conducting at least three separate investigations into the incident, Slattery said. One involves a Safety Investigation Board (SIB) focused on safety and prevention that also aims to identify the cause. Rear Adm. Kevin Byrne, commander of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Naval Surface Warfare Center, is leading the SIB.

Additionally, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team to determine the circumstances surrounding the fire. NCIS requested the ATF response given its ability to provide “valuable explosives and fire investigative resources and expertise on complex, large-scale incidents,” Slattery said.

The Navy also will conduct a command investigation that will serve as a detailed post-mortem of the incident and the response, with a goal of preventing similar incidents in the future. That effort will begin as soon as officials can access the ship. 

“Make no mistake. We will follow the facts of what happened here, we will be honest with ourselves, and we will get after it as a Navy,” Gilday said at the mid-July news conference.

There is no timeline for determining the future of USS Bonhomme Richard, or the completion of the investigations. Gilday expects to publicly share key findings once they are ready.

By Professional Mariner Staff