The U.S. Navy announced punishments on Friday to more than 20 sailors for their connection to the fire aboard the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard that destroyed the warship, injured more than 60 military and civilian firefighters, and took four days to extinguish at a San Diego naval base in July 2020.
The punishments against the sailors are separate from criminal proceedings against Navy Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays, who was charged with arson in the disaster. He faces a hearing on Aug. 17, with his trial expected to run Sept. 19 through Sept. 30.
Although Seaman Mays was accused of deliberately starting the fire, the findings of an investigation released by the Navy in October 2021 revealed that the damage could have been lessened had naval officers been better prepared. “The ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” the report said. The investigation cited inadequate training, improper oversight and a failure to properly maintain equipment as reasons for the total loss of the ship.
The punishments, issued by an independent review body known as the consolidated disposition authority, which was led by Admiral Samuel Paparo, mostly involved the ship’s leadership and fire response team.
Additionally, the three most senior officers of the ship — Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, the former commanding officer; Capt. Michael Ray, the former executive officer; and Jose Hernandez, the former command master chief, the ship’s senior-most enlisted sailor and a top adviser to the commanding officer — were issued letters of reprimand, with Captain Thoroman and Captain Ray also forfeiting pay.
The Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, also issued a letter of censure to retired Vice Admiral Richard Brown, who led the Naval Surface Force for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time of the fire. In the letter, Mr. Del Toro told Admiral Brown “you failed to identify and mitigate against the lack of oversight that contributed to the loss of the ship.”
Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi, a public affairs officer for the Secretary of the Navy, characterized the investigation and letters of reprimand as part of a broader effort by the Navy to hold officers accountable for failing to live up to standards expected of them.
“We’re trying to be more transparent and more forward leaning in determining causes and holding those accountable,” Lieutenant Dimaapi said.
The fire that engulfed the Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship that was designed to carry thousands of Marines and deploy them from landing craft and helicopters, began when it was docked and undergoing renovations.
The fire broke out on a Sunday morning, when fewer than 200 sailors were on board, and spread rapidly. Initial firefighting efforts were halted after an explosion inside the ship forced the sailors to temporarily withdraw.
More than 400 sailors from 16 nearby ships fought the blaze, which reached temperatures of 1,000 degrees and rendered the ship inoperable. The fire is considered one of the worst to engulf an American warship outside combat.