A US Navy amphibious assault ship was destroyed by fire last summer in part because sailors failed to press a button that could have activated a critical fire-suppression system, the command investigation into the incident found.
The Navy commissioned the big-deck amphib USS Bonhomme Richard in 1998 at a cost of $750 million, or roughly $1.2 billion today. The total value of the ship at the time of the fire is estimated to be about $2 billion, according to multiple reports.
In July 2020, the ship was set on fire while pier-side in San Diego for maintenance. The fire burned intensely for four days, damaging the ship to the point that the Navy decided to scrap it rather than repair it.
Former 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn said in an investigation report on the fire that “although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire.” He specifically called attention to how the “inadequately prepared crew” mounted an “ineffective fire response.”
The ineffective response aboard the Bonhomme Richard included multiple failures, including a failure to follow basic firefighting principles, such as utilizing the aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, system.
As USNI News first reported, the fire-suppression system was not used because it had been improperly maintained and sailors were unfamiliar with how to use it.
“Ship’s Force did not consider employing the AFFF system in a timely manner,” the command investigation said, explaining that this “contributed to the spread and inability to control the fire.”
The AFFF system was not fully operational, but “even in its degraded status,” the investigation states, “if AFFF had been activated in Lower V, it would have provided agent in the vicinity of the seat of the fire, limiting the intensity and rate of spread. If AFFF had been activated in Upper V, it may have slowed the fire’s progress to the aft part of Upper V.”
“Ship’s Force should have attempted to activate AFFF,” the investigation said. “There was almost no discussion about using the system until more than two hours after the fire started.”
The AFFF system could have been easily and effectively activated with the push of a button, but, as the report explained, “the button was never pushed and no member of the crew interviewed considered this action or had specific knowledge as to the location of the button or its function.”
The Washington Examiner first reported the failure of Bonhomme Richard sailors to employ the push-button AFFF system.
“It is surprising that nobody on scene knew how to activate the system or was familiar enough with it to activate it,” Bryan Clark, a former Navy officer and defense expert at the Hudson Institute, told Insider. “It’s been around a long time.”
Clark said that from a command perspective, the inability of the crew to use this system is “a huge oversight,” explaining that AFFF is “your go-to backup firefighting system.”
“You fight a fire with fire extinguishers and then hoses, and then if it gets out of control, you would go to the AFFF system and start flooding spaces with AFFF to put it out,” he said.
He added that this “should have been well known to the entire crew.”
Clark said it is possible that some of the crew was changed out during the 19-month overhaul, during which training for things like fires is less rigorous than it might be for a ship underway, and that the Bonhomme Richard ended up with a crew that was not well trained in dealing with fires and floods and other potential catastrophes.
Clark said if the AFFF system and the push-button activation systems, the status of which is unknown due to incomplete maintenance checks, were working on the day the fire started, “it could’ve made a big difference.”
A number of other missteps and failures, such as delays in reporting the fire, a disorganized command response, and the inability to clear and seal off certain areas, only made things worse on the Bonhomme Richard.
“The loss of this ship was completely preventable,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Lescher said Wednesday.
He further explained that “the Navy is executing a deliberative process that includes taking appropriate accountability actions with respect to personnel assigned to Bonhomme Richard and the shore commands designed to support the ship while moored at Naval Base San Diego.”
In the the command investigation into the warship fire, Conn identified 36 people who, in one way or another, contributed to the loss of the Bonhomme Richard, including the commanding officer, who reportedly “created an environment of poor training, maintenance, and operational standards that directly led to the loss.”
It is still unclear at this time what accountability actions the Navy plans to take for those determined to be responsible.
Ryan Pickrell is a senior military and defense reporter at Business Insider, where he covers defense-related issues from Washington, DC.