U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino has appointed the head of San Diego, Calif.-based 3rd Fleet to lead the official command investigation into the July 12 fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6).
Vice Adm. Scott Conn, a veteran pilot who took command of the San Diego-based fleet last year, will look “into the facts and circumstances surrounding the cause” of the fire, Cmdr. J. Myers Vasquez, a PACFLEET spokesman in Hawaii, said in a statement to USNI News.
“In order to drive vigorous self-assessment as a learning organization, CPF has directed the investigation to examine all casual and contributing factors from unit-level execution to programmatic, policy and resourcing that may have been a factor in this incident,” Vasquez said.
The fire began in a lower vehicle stowage area while the ship was berthed at Pier 2 at Naval Base San Diego and quickly spread throughout the ship. It nearly gutted interior spaces of the amphibious assault ship despite a massive fire attack by sailors, civilian and federal firefighters that lasted five days and burned through all but two decks. No one was seriously hurt, although several dozen suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
In the weeks since, salvage crews have been painstakingly working to clear debris, including scaffolding used during the ongoing pierside maintenance period, and ensure the safety of crew members, damage assessment teams and investigators as they progress on three separate inquiries. Last week, work began to remove the aft mast that had collapsed on the superstructure.
The command investigation is one of three probes underway tied to the July fire.
The Navy last month assigned Rear Adm. Kevin Byrne, who commands Naval Surface Warfare Center and Naval Undersea Warfare Center, to lead the Safety Investigation Board. Such formal boards identify factors that led to the fire, as well as existing hazards and recommendations to prevent future incidents. Members of Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Safety Center, Naval Surface Forces Pacific, Naval Education Training Command and Naval Installations Command will comprise the board.
The Naval Criminal Investigation Service is leading the criminal investigation, meant to rule out or confirm any criminal activity that could be tied to the source or the cause of the fire. Officials confirmed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting NCIS.
Damage assessments are expected to help Navy officials determine the fate of the 22-year-old Wasp-class ship, which commissioned in 1998 and had completed multiple overseas deployments, including to the Persian Gulf and western Pacific.
Ongoing salvage and cleanup work is being done under a $10 million contract awarded July 22 to General Dynamics NASSCO, the San Diego shipyard that was two-thirds through a $248 million repair and maintenance availability on Bonhomme Richard that began in late 2018.
Other contractors have been aiding the Navy since the fire broke out.
One of those is US Fire Pump, a Holden-La.-based emergency response company that deployed high-volume fire pumps and hoses to San Diego a day after the fire began. The company sent a dozen industrial firefighting specialists along with specialized, submersible pumps and high-velocity pumps, and more than 10,000 feet of hose to aid in the firefight led by San Diego Federal Fire Department.US Fire Pump is a subcontractor to SMIT AMERICAS, which is the prime under contract to Naval Sea Systems Command, said Colleen O’Rourke, a NAVSEA spokeswoman.
“The work performed by US Fire Pump included firefighter augmentation to the Navy and Federal firefighting teams, off-ship firefighting equipment, and overhead drone surveillance as part of the Navy’s overarching firefighting response,” she said.