WASHINGTON – More than a year after a Navy warship was destroyed by arson, department heads said on Wednesday they were making changes and increasing oversight to correct the widespread failures that led to the scrapping of the USS Bonhomme Richard.
“I consider the loss of Bonhomme Richard to be preventable and totally unacceptable. The Navy is looking closely at our shortcomings, ”said Admiral Bill Lescher, vice chief of naval operations. He said it wasn’t just “happy conversations”.
A new system of unannounced inspections has started, Lescher told reporters, and disciplinary options are being considered for what a review found to be widespread deficiencies in training, coordination, communication, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and general command and control.
“We’re serious in doing in-depth analysis to understand and improve the Navy, we hold leaders accountable for the deviation from the standards we see, and we’re on the right track to foster learning and remediation,” did he declare.
A report obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday found that although the fire was deliberately started as the 840-foot (256-meter) amphibious assault ship was docked in San Diego for a $ 250 million upgrade. dollars, it was lost due to repeated failures of an “insufficiently prepared crew” unable to extinguish the fire.
Navy officials said on Wednesday that a key finding showed Navy crews were highly capable of fighting fires aboard ships at sea and in combat, but that those skills diminish when ships are docked for maintenance. . Bonhomme Richard was in maintenance at the time of the fire.
“When we have missed the opportunity, these are the high risk situations in the maintenance environment or in the dock environment where we have downsized after hours or we have equipment that is not available. due to maintenance or equipment that has been moved, ”said Rear Admiral Paul Spedero Jr., who led a broad review that looked at 15 shipyard fires in the past 12 years.
Following the review, he said crews will now be tested, trained and certified when entering a maintenance phase, to ensure they are aware of the safety risks and how to mitigate them.
Vice-Admiral Scott Conn., Who led the review of Bonhomme Richard’s fire response and wrote the final report, said changes, including more training, need to be made from commanders to sailors on deck.
“In times of crisis or combat, individuals or organizations will not rise to the level of our aspirations, they will fall back to the level of training. And we have to make sure that our training prepares our people for success, ”said Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for the war,
The Navy has established a “Learning to Action Board” which will implement the recommendations of the report and other reviews. The Naval Safety Center, which has been headed by a one-star admiral, will be headed by a two-star admiral and will have expanded staff and responsibilities.
The center has already carried out more than 170 unannounced or short-term assessments of Navy units to ensure they are meeting safety standards.
Retired Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, professor of international maritime law at Fordham University in New York, said the findings point to problems the Navy has known for decades.
“You can blame anyone you want, but these are systemic issues,” he said. “The ships in the shipyard do not have adequate firefighting personnel or equipment to respond to the likely accident. And this is a long standing problem.
He said the loss of the Bonhomme Richard should force the Navy to better prepare its sailors to recognize the risks when a ship is docked. “It’s easy to spend time focusing on the arson allegation, but it shouldn’t have resulted in the loss of a warship of this size,” he said.
Another marine surveyor, Rod Sullivan, called the findings “frightening” to anyone who has served on a ship where fire is considered the worst enemy.
“If you’ve been on a ship and read this report, you are amazed at the level of unpreparedness and the ineffective actions taken by anyone in the Navy to deal with the blaze,” Sullivan said.
The report blamed a wide range of ranks and responsibilities, from the retired three-star admiral who led the Naval Surface Force’s Pacific Fleet, Vice-Admiral Richard Brown, to senior commanders, to rank and file sailors. lower level and civilian program managers. Seventeen were cited for failures which “directly” led to the loss of the vessel, while 17 others “contributed” to the loss of the vessel. Two other sailors were blamed for not effectively assisting the fire response. Of the 36, nine are civilians.
The report directly blamed the ship’s three senior officers: Captain Gregory Thoroman, the Commanding Officer; Captain Michael Ray, the executive officer; and Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez – for failing to effectively ensure the readiness and condition of the ship.
When the fire broke out, around 115 sailors were on board. Nearly 60 were treated for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries. Due to the damage, the Navy decommissioned the ship in April. In August, apprentice sailor Ryan Mays was charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a ship. He denied having set it on fire.
The complete repair of the combat-capable USS Bonhomme Richard would have cost between $ 2.5 billion and $ 3 billion and would have taken five to seven years, according to the Navy.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.