Sailor Charged with Starting the Fire Aboard the Bonhomme Richard

sailor charged with setting fire that destoryed navy ship
Fire burned for nearly five days in July 2020 (US Navy photo)

Published Jul 29, 2021 8:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Late today, the U.S. Navy confirmed that charges have been filed against a sailor for potentially setting the fire in July 2020 that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard while it was docked at Naval Base San Diego. The Navy reports that the investigation is ongoing including a separate and ongoing command investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the fire.

"On July 29, charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) were brought against a Navy sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire started on USS Bonhomme Richard on July 12, 2020,” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, U.S. 3rd Fleet spokesperson in a prepared statement for the press. “Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system.”

The Navy did not publicly identify the sailor but confirmed that the sailor was a member of Bonhomme Richard’s crew at the time of the fire. The sailor is accused of starting the fire.

The fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard started in a lower hold on July 12 as she sat at a pier in San Diego. Winds off the bay and the location of the fire near ventilation shafts promoted the spread of the blaze. The fire-fight lasted for nearly five days involving hundreds of sailors, but the fire burned all the way up through the top of the superstructure. About sixty percent of the vessel's interior compartments were damaged, in addition to her newly-upgraded flight deck. In addition, 63 sailors sustained minor injuries during the effort to bring the fire under control.

The investigation into the fire began immediately. Recently it had been reported in the media that several sailors were under investigation and rumored that several were being interviewed. 

"Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, Commander, U.S. Third Fleet is considering court-martial charges and has directed a preliminary hearing at which an impartial hearing officer will make determinations and recommendations required by the UCMJ prior to any further trial proceedings – including whether or not there is probable cause to believe an offense has been committed and to offer a recommendation as to the disposition of the case,” according to the Navy’s statement. Due to the preliminary nature of the case the Navy declined to provide any additional details. 

During the subsequent investigation and survey of the vessel after the fire, the Navy determined that the estimated cost of repair to bring Bonhomme Richard back to fighting form was in the range of $2.5-3.2 billion, and the price of converting her into a hospital ship or other support vessel came in at around $1 billion. Neither option appeared attractive when compared with newbuildings, according to Navy leadership.

The U.S. Navy decided to scrap the fire-ravaged Bonhomme Richard after weighing the extent of the damage and cost of repairs against the practical alternative of building a new ship. The cost of decommissioning, relocation and scrapping the vessel was estimated at $30 million.

The vessel was officially decommissioned in early April and departed San Diego in tow on April 15. USNI News reported that the vessel was sold for $3,66 million to International Shipbreaking LTD., located in Brownsville, Texas.  The hulk arrived in Texas at the end of May.