Navy Probe Finds Major Failures in Fire That Destroyed Ship

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A Navy report has concluded there were sweeping failures by commanders, crew members, and others that fueled the July 2020 arson fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, calling the massive five-day blaze in San Diego preventable and unacceptable. While one sailor has been charged with setting the fire, the more than 400-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, lists three dozen officers and sailors whose failings either directly led to the ship’s loss or contributed to it. The findings detailed widespread lapses in training, coordination, communication, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance, and overall command and control. “Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” the report said, concluding that “repeated failures” by an “inadequately prepared crew” delivered “an ineffective fire response.” It slammed commanders of the amphibious assault ship for poor oversight, and said the main firefighting foam system wasn’t used because it hadn’t been maintained properly and the crew didn’t know how to use it. The report is expected to be released Wednesday. U.S. Navy officials on Tuesday said that while crews at sea consistently meet high firefighting standards, those skills drop off when ships move into maintenance periods. The Bonhomme Richard was undergoing maintenance at the time of the fire. During maintenence there are more people and organizations involved with the ship, including contractors. And the repairs often involve equipment and chemicals that present different hazards and challenges. The report describes a ship in disarray, with combustible materials scattered and stored improperly. It said maintenance reports were falsified, and that 87% of the fire stations on board had equipment problems or had not been inspected. It also found that crew members didn’t ring the bells to alert sailors of a fire until 10 minutes after it was discovered. Those crucial minutes, the report said, caused delays in crews donning fire gear, assembling hose teams, and responding to the fire. Sailors also failed to push the button and activate the firefighting foam system, even though it was accessible and could have slowed the fire’s progress. “No member of the crew interviewed considered this action or had specific knowledge as to the location of the button or its function,” the report said. The report spreads blame across a wide range of ranks and responsibilities, from the now retired three-star admiral who headed Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet — Vice Adm. Richard Brown — to senior commanders, lower ranking sailors, and civilian program managers. Seventeen were cited for failures that “directly” led to the loss of the ship, while 17 others “contributed” to the loss of the ship. Two other sailors were faulted for not effectively helping the fire response. Of the 36, nine are civilians. Adm. William Lescher, the vice chief of naval operations, has designated the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet to handle any disciplinary actions for military members. The Navy officials said the disciplinary process is just beginning. One official said the key challenge in making improvements will be addressing the “human factor,” including leadership skills and ensuring that everyone down to the lowest ranking sailors understands their responsibilities, and can recognize problems and correct them.

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