USS Bonhomme Richard burns
The USS Bonhomme Richard ablaze at Naval Base San Diego in July 2020. Navy photo

For anyone around San Diego Bay on July 12 last year, the massive explosions and plume of black smoke that darkened the sky were widely heard and seen.

The amphibious assault ship, USS Bonhomme Richard was ablaze at dockside, as explosions ripped through 11 of its 14 decks; it was an inferno that reached 1,200 degrees.

The ship was being converted to handle the F-35B stealth fighter, as part of the Navy’s plan to keep its newest warplanes on station in the far Pacific.

What happened that day is detailed, in part, from hundreds of emails obtained under the California Public Records Act. These documents offer a partial window into the exchanges  the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department had with the Navy in their joint effort to determine the cause and origin of the inferno on the 844-foot ship.

The documents released under the CPRA only show the San Diego Fire-Rescue’s end of the investigation. The Navy’s side would require a Freedom of Information request and given the nature of the incident and how the Navy responds to FOI requests, it’s possible its side of these discussions may never be known.

The dispatch sheets reveal that the San Diego Fire-Rescue threw everything it had at the fire, but in the end the battle was lost. The fire was first fought in the lower decks where there was extensive damage. The far costlier damage was to the flight deck, the ship’s mast and the deck structure where all the communications and radar equipment are found.

The fire department’s emails show 15 Navy intelligence personnel were involved in investigating the cause of the fire with the agency and that the initial reports said arson was suspected. Previous media reports indicated a sailor was being interviewed about the fire but no further information has been forthcoming. Requests for more details on the fire, its cause and the results of any findings were sent to Naval Intelligence but so far no response has been received.

The incident detail report shows the call for help came in at 8:51 a.m. and the first engine arrived within eight minutes. Five other engines were dispatched within five minutes of the first alert.

Over the next hours, waves of firefighters and equipment arrived. It would be four days before the fire was fully extinguished. And it would be four months before Naval Intelligence Services would allow San Diego Fire-Rescue to retrieve its gear from  the fifth level of the ship, which appears to be the source of the fire.

In the months that followed there have been a series of meetings between the two agencies, as their communications indicated.

Documents include a 79-page San Diego Fire-Rescue incident log showing the extensive movement of personnel and equipment. The injured personnel who were taken away by ambulance included 17 fire personnel from San Diego, one from Coronado Fire, one federal firefighter and 21 Navy personnel. The primary injuries were concussions and dehydration.  

The  Navy seemed particularly interested in the actions of early-arriving crews from San Diego.  Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Ester explained to his staff that the Navy asked, “did Engine 7 actually put water on the fire?” The fire department told the Navy yes. “This was from the side entry point on the BHR (sorry I don’t know the correct terminology),” Ester said. “I was told that it appeared that the fire was below deck and was igniting materials on the deck above, and this is what our crews were fighting.”

The assistant chief says that it is “doubtful this was what we call the ‘seat’ of the fire, but they were engaging and did proceed down into the ship during this time.” According to the incident log, Engine 7 was the second San Diego vehicle to arrive dockside.

The Navy also wanted to hear from the San Diego fire personnel who got up close to the flames. They wrote, “We’d like to try to get some input from the first in line on the hose team to help us understand the details of the situation in the ship based off of what was seen firsthand by the nozzleman.”

The emails reference the Navy’s dual investigations around the fire. One is a safety investigation that remains private so witnesses can speak without fear of reprisal. The second is an administrative investigation which will be “available for the public to debate, including what we need to do to get after any systemic problems that we might have,” said Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday. 

He indicated in comments made to Defense News serious concerns about how prepared Naval personnel were to fight the shipboard fire. “We’ve got to follow the facts, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves and we’ve got to get after it,” he told Defense News.

 Chief Ester told fire department personnel the Navy was complimentary about his department’s role in the investigation, saying that it “can’t overstate how greatly it has greatly advanced our understanding of how things unfolded so far.”

The Navy said in a statement that “the investigation remains ongoing. No charges have been filed at this time. Out of respect for the investigative process, NCIS does not comment on or confirm details relating to ongoing investigations.”

With 60 percent of the ship ruined, the fate of the Bonhomme Richard has been decided.  The Navy will bite the bullet and scrap the ship at a cost of $30 million, considered a bargain compared to other options. The Navy’s director of ship maintenance has said to restore the ship would cost between $2.5 and $3.2 billion and take five to seven years.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.