A $2 billion US Navy warship went up in flames in part because sailors failed to press a button, investigation finds

Crew members fight fire aboard the US Navy amphibious assault vessel USS Bonhomme Richard. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
The Navy claims that the USS Bonhomme Richard was set on fire by an arsonist but that it was destroyed due to incompetence.

Poorly maintained firefighting equipment meant that sailors were not prepared and well-trained to tackle a fire.

The ship was lost because the button that activated fire suppression foam wasn't pressed.

The command investigation found that sailors had failed to press the button that could have activated the critical fire-suppression device on the US Navy amphibious assault vessel.

In 1998, the Navy purchased the large-deck amphib USS Bonhomme Richard at a cost $750 million. That's roughly $1.2 Billion today. Multiple reports indicate that the ship's total value at the time of the fire was approximately $2 billion.

The ship was set ablaze while it was dockside in San Diego, California for maintenance. The ship was severely damaged by the fire for four days.

Firefighters fight a fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. Photo by Jason Kofonow, Mass Communication Specialist 1st class

Vice Adm. Scott Conn, former commander of the 3rd Fleet, stated in an investigation report that the fire started as an act arson and the ship was destroyed by inability to extinguish it. He specifically referred to the fact that an "inadequately equipped crew" responded ineffectively to a fire.

Numerous failures occurred aboard Bonhomme Richard, including a failure of basic firefighting principles such as using the AFFF (aqueous film forming foam) system.

USNI News reported that the fire suppression system was not being used due to its improper maintenance and because sailors weren't familiar with its use.

"Ship's Force didn't consider using the AFFF system in a timely fashion," said the command investigation, explaining that this "contributed towards the spread and inability of controlling the fire."

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Although the AFFF system wasn't fully operational, the investigation found that "even in its reduced status, it would have provided agent near the seat of fire, limiting the intensity of the spread and rate of spreading." AFFF activation in Upper V may have slowed down the fire's progress towards the aft portion of Upper V.

The investigation found that Ship's Force should have tried to activate AFFF. "There was not much discussion about the use of the system for more than two hours after the fire began."

The AFFF system could have easily been activated by pressing a button. However, the report stated that the button was never pushed. No member of the crew had any knowledge of its location or function.

The Washington Examiner reported for the first time that Bonhomme Richard sailors were unable to use the push-button AFFF method.

Bryan Clark, a former Navy officer who is now a defense expert at Hudson Institute, said that it was surprising that no one on the scene knew how to activate or was familiar with the system to activate it. It's been around for a while.

Clark stated that the crew's inability to use the system from a command standpoint is "a huge oversight", explaining that AFFF "is your go-to backup firefighting method."

He said, "Fire extinguishers are used to fight a fire, then hoses. If it gets out control, you can go to the AFFF system to flood spaces with AFFF to put out it."

He said that the crew should have known about this.

USS Bonhomme Richard set ablaze at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. US Navy/MCS2 Austin Haist via Getty Images

Clark suggested that it was possible that some crew members were changed during the 19-month overhaul. This is when training for fires, floods, and other hazards is less rigorous than for ships underway.

Clark stated that if the AFFF and push-button activation systems (whose status is not known due to incomplete maintenance checks), were functioning on the day of the fire, it could have made a huge difference.

Other missteps and failures such as delayed reporting of the fire, disorganized command response and inability to clear certain areas only made matters worse for Bonhomme Richard.

"The loss was totally preventable," Vice Chief Naval Operations Adm. Bill Lescher stated Wednesday.

He explained that the Navy was executing a deliberate process that included taking appropriate accountability actions for personnel assigned to Bonhomme Richard as well as the shore commands that support the ship while it is moored at Naval Base San Diego.

Conn identified 36 individuals who contributed to the Bonhomme Richard's loss in the warship fire investigation. This included the commanding officer who Conn claims "created an atmosphere of poor maintenance and training that directly led to the loss."

At this point, it is not clear what accountability measures the Navy will take to hold those found responsible.

Business Insider has the original article.