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U.S. Navy Issues Nonjudicial Punishments for USS Bonhomme Richard Fire

bonhomme richard fire
USS Bonhomme Richard burns, June 2020 (USN)

Published Jul 18, 2022 3:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has announced a broad range of nonjudicial punishments and letters of censure for the leadership of the amphib USS Bonhomme Richard, which caught fire and burned at Naval Station San Diego two years ago. 

While the Naval Criminal Investigative Service believes that one crewmember bears responsibility for sparking the blaze, a wide-ranging after-accident investigation found that the responsibility for the ship's destruction lay primarily in an ineffective and uncoordinated firefighting response after the first signs of trouble were detected.

The report laid out an astonishing sequence of failures, from the crew's firefighting training to the industrial hygiene precautions during Bonhomme Richard's yard period to the delayed reaction on the day of the fire. The common thread was a failure of leadership, running all the way up to the flag-officer level, lead investigator Vice Adm. Scott Conn found.

"Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire," concluded Conn's team. "In the 19 months executing the ship’s maintenance availability, repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response."

In a statement Friday, the Navy announced the accountability actions it has taken in connection with Conn's report. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo has made 27 disposition decisions for active-duty personnel, and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has issued a Secretarial Letter of Censure for one retired officer. 

The disposition decisions all stopped short of court martial, and they focused primarily on Bonhomme Richard's leadership team. Paparo handed punitive letters of reprimand to former CO Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, former XO Capt. Michael Ray and former Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez. Thoroman and Ray also received pay forfeiture. 

The total list of accountability actions included six nonjudicial punishments (NJPs) with guilty findings; four lesser NJPs; one matter of interest filing; five letters of instruction; three non-punitive letters of caution; two letters documenting substandard performance; and six no-action determinations. 

Additionally, Secretary Del Toro issued a Secretarial Letter of Censureto Vice Adm. Richard Brown (ret'd). At the time of the fire, Brown was the commander of Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The USS Bonhomme Richard was declared a total loss after the fire, costing the Navy approximately $1.2 billion (in original acquisition value). About 60 firefighters were injured in fighting the blaze. 

“When leaders’ actions or inactions result in the loss of life or capital resources, the senior leadership of the Department of the Navy has a responsibility to determine the root cause and hold those accountable,” Del Toro said in a message sent to the Department of the Navy on June 2. “This fire could have been prevented with adequate oversight into the ship’s material condition and the crew’s readiness to combat a fire.”

Seaman Ryan Sawyer Mays, a dropout from the Navy SEALS training program who was transferred to Bonhomme Richard, was formally charged with arson in July 2021 in connection with the fire. His trial is scheduled to begin in September.