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Unanswered questions remain in USS Bonhomme Richard fire

A Navy arson trial is about to get underway, more than two years after fire destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard. The trial comes as the Navy continues to unravel why the fire became one of the worst peace-time disasters in Navy history.

Beginning on July 12, 2020, the USS Bonhomme Richard burned for nearly five days in the San Diego Bay.

“It was horrifying. It was the biggest fire I've ever seen in my life,” said Senior Chief Michael Robert Penny. “A lot of sailors did a lot of hard work to try and save that ship. And unfortunately, it was just too big. The fire was too large.”

Penny was off that Sunday morning. By the time he arrived at Naval Base San Diego the ship was in flames. Penny became one of the Navy investigators on the origins of the fire. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the disaster until now.

The crew had just moved back on board that Friday, filling their quarters with gear. While ships are in maintenance, other commands often borrow sailors and officers for duties off the ship. The Bonhomme Richard was being renovated when the fire broke out. In addition, the ship was short handed that morning, Penny said.

“Lack of experience, lack of training,” he said. "That coupled with the lack of electrical power on board.”

When an explosion sent debris hurdling onto the nearby USS Fitzgerald, commanders ordered power cut to the pier so other ships could make an emergency exit from Naval Base San Diego. The decision also cut power to the firefighters, Penny said.

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Steve Walsh
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KPBS
Senior Chief Michael Robert Penny is the head of damage control on board the USS Portland. Sept. 8, 2022.

Darren Hall is the program director at the Miramar College Fire Academy and a captain with the Coronado Fire Department with 25 years experience. He said nothing compares with the Bonhomme Richard fire.

“Not in my career. This has probably been the largest one I've been familiar with on the bay. And recent memory,” Hall said.

Navy reports say mutual aid agreements with local departments were decades old, some dating back to 1991. Hall says local firefighters are invited to train with Federal Fire, the civilian agency that serves the Navy and Marines in the San Diego area. Fires on board ships are so different that they aren’t even part of the curriculum for beginning firefighters.

“The first part is it's all metal,” Hall said. “So your heat that's going to be conducting through where you're walking on different floors of the ship, when you're looking for where the seat of the fire is it could be deep inside of the ship.”

There are still key questions about how the Bonhomme Richard fire started.

Ship fires are actually fairly common. Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays is charged with arson and hazarding a vessel. He is set to face a court martial beginning Sept. 19. His attorneys want to introduce evidence of another small fire that broke out on the nearby USS Essex the same morning.

Gary Barthel was part of Mays’ legal team during the sailors early court appearances. He says arson can be hard to prove, especially when there’s extensive damage.

“Mays has maintained his innocence throughout,” Barthel said. “And whether it can be proven that it was an arson or not, I think that's one area that needs to be processed.”

In military court, the admiral in charge has the final word on whether a case proceeds to trial. But one reason the case has taken so long to come to trial is a hearing officer actually ruled the Navy didn’t have enough evidence to convict Mays.

“She did not believe, based on this evidence, that the government would be able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and recommended that the case would not go to a general court martial,” Barthel said.

Penny, the senior chief who worked on the investigation, is now head of damage control for the USS Portland — a ship similar to the USS Bonhomme Richard. Penny says he pushes the crew of his new ship.

“I have changed the way that we do training,” Penny said. “Every single sailor from the captain down to the newest sailor on board is required to don a firefighting ensemble and actively use a fire hose all by themselves.”

Penny still worries that fire could destroy another Navy ship like the way it destroyed the amphibious assault ship, often nicknamed the BHR.

“Every day is filled with some type of anxiety. After seeing the BHR, I would be lying if I didn't say that I am worried every moment,” Penny said.

At least 20 officers and sailors were disciplined after the fire on the Bonhomme Richard. Meanwhile, the Navy waits for the jury to decide what caused the fire that destroyed the billion dollar warship.

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