Navy Charges Sailor With Arson in Fire That Destroyed Warship

The Navy charged a sailor on Thursday with deliberately starting a fire last year that destroyed the 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,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement.

Commander Robertson said the sailor was a member of the ship’s crew at the time of the fire, which began on July 12, 2020. 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 willfully hazarding a vessel and aggravated arson.

The commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet, Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, will decide whether to refer charges to a court-martial after the results of the hearing.

In August, Navy officials said one sailor was under investigation for possibly starting the shipboard fire, but it was unclear 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 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 degrees 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 U.S. Naval Institute, the ship, which cost an estimated $761 million to build, was sold for $3.66 million to a company in Brownsville, Texas, that will break it apart and sell the metal for scrap.

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