US Navy charges sailor with arson in fire that destroyed warship

Firefighting vessels combating a blaze on board the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020.
Firefighting vessels combating a blaze on board the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020.PHOTO: AFP/US NAVY

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The US Navy charged a sailor on Thursday (July 29) with deliberately starting a fire last year that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, one of the worst blazes to engulf an American warship outside of combat.

"Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system," navy spokesman Sean Robertson said in a statement.

He said the sailor was a member of the ship's crew at the time of the fire, which broke out on July 12 last year.

The navy declined to provide any other details about the sailor except for his or her rank - seaman apprentice - and said the sailor would face charges of wilfully hazarding a vessel and aggravated arson.

The commander of the navy's 3rd Fleet, Vice-Admiral Steve Koehler, will decide whether to refer charges to a court martial after the results of the hearing.

Last August, navy officials said one sailor was under investigation for possibly starting the shipboard fire, but it was unclear on Thursday night whether the charges were filed against that same person.

The navy has yet to release the results of its investigations into the blaze.

The USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, was tied to the pier at Naval Base San Diego when a fire broke out and quickly grew out of control on a Sunday morning when fewer than 200 sailors were on board.

Initial firefighting efforts were halted after an explosion inside the ship forced sailors to temporarily withdraw for safety.

More than 400 sailors from 16 nearby ships fought the blaze, which reached temperatures of 1,000 deg C and took four days to extinguish.

Dozens of military and civilian firefighters were treated for injuries including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation while fighting the blaze.

The ship was decommissioned on April 14 after the navy determined that repairing it would ultimately be far more expensive than building a replacement.

The Bonhomme Richard had been in service since August 1998 and participated in peacekeeping missions in East Timor in 2000 and later supported combat operations in Iraq.

The ship's home port was Sasebo, Japan, from 2012 to 2018 before it returned to San Diego. It was undergoing an extended period of repair and refitting when the fire broke out.

According to the US Naval Institute, the ship, which cost an estimated US$761 million (S$1.03 billion) to build, was sold for US$3.66 million to a company in Brownsville, Texas, that will break it apart and sell the metal for scrap.