Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats fight a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020.

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats fight a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020. U.S. Navy via Getty Images / Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross

Sailor Charged With Setting USS Bonhomme Richard Fire

Preliminary hearing will lead to recommendation about a court martial.

An unnamed sailor has been charged with setting the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last July that burned for days and led to the decommissioning of the ship, the Navy said Thursday.

A criminal investigation into the blaze revealed enough evidence to bring charges against the sailor, who was a member of the ship’s crew at the time of the fire, according to a U.S. 3rd Fleet statement. 

“Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesman for U.S. 3rd Fleet, said in the statement.

That hearing, ordered by 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, will lead to recommendations about whether the sailor should stand trial by court martial, Robertson said in the statement. 

“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,” he said.  

The fire aboard the amphibious assault ship started July 12, 2020, while it was undergoing maintenance at Naval Base San Diego. It burned for four days before it was finally extinguished. The blaze burned through 11 of the ship’s 14 decks and destroyed its forward mast and superstructure. About 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries.

The Navy last November decided not to restore the ship, after an assessment determined it could cost more than $3 billion and take five to seven years to return it to usable condition. 

Four investigations were initiated into the fire, including a command investigation, a safety investigation, and a criminal investigation by Naval Criminal Investigative Service with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, USNI News reported in November. The command investigation is complete and is currently under review, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Patricia Kreuzberger said. The review is expected to be completed later this summer. 

Last week, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the commander of Naval Surface Forces, said that after the fire, his command checked to see whether people were following the requirements for a ship in an industrial environment like a shipyard.

“We found that, yeah, in some cases maybe we weren't doing as well as we should have,” he said. “We’re pretty good at firefighting at sea and all those procedures. When we got to the industrial environment it was ‘OK, looks like we need to kind of make sure there’s a little bit of education and then there’s a little bit of spot checking.’”

Kitchener’s command hired civilian and military fire marshals on the waterfront to evaluate ship training for fighting fires and ensuring that people are doing proper safety inspections. They also invested in high-end fire detection systems that can be installed on ships when other systems have to be shut down during maintenance, he said.