The USS Bonhomme Richard Fire: A Harsh Lesson in Command Responsibility
We don’t yet know how it started, but we DO know why the fire went out of control. The command screwed up, big time.
On July 12th, a fire broke out on the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), a “gator freighter” homeported in San Diego. She had last been on deployment in 2018 and was in port for repairs and upkeep. At the time the blaze broke out, there were about 160 people on board out of the normal complement of about 1000 sailors. We’re told the fire appears to have begun in the lower cargo hold in the front of the ship where cardboard and other supplies were kept, and that when it started, the Halon fire-suppression was undergoing maintenance and was inoperable. The fire spread from that lower cargo hold to the top of the superstructure, as is evident in the photo above.
Halon is a liquified compressed gas that interrupts the chemical reaction that results in fires, and it leaves no residue. It’s really good stuff, as most qualified firefighters on Navy ships will tell you, and their right. It really does put out fires lickety-split. It’s especially useful in Class Charlie (electrical/electronic systems) and Class Delta (flammable metal and materials that don’t need oxygen to maintain combustion) fires that are often next to impossible to put out without significant damage to vital electronics systems. It turns out that electronics doesn’t do well when soaked with normal shipboard firefighting agents e.g. seawater and Aqueous Fire-Fighting Foam (AFFF).
But the Halon fire suppression system wasn’t operable, so that must be the reason the fire got out of control, right?
That’s a hard “no”. Somebody screwed up. Big time. And almost every retired Navy sailor out there knows why.
First off, for all the side-walking sandcrabs out there (that’s people who’ve never worked on a Navy ship underway), the number one danger to any ship is fire. This was true when the English defeated the Spanish Armada 432 years ago this coming Tuesday, and it’s true today. “But wait,” you ask, “today’s ships are made out of steel, and steel isn’t known to be a flammable material, right?”
That’s very true. Thing is, bare steel has the very annoying habit of rusting, especially when exposed year-in and year-out to salt water. That’s why, on almost every surface on a Navy ship, there’s usually multiple layers of paint…and that paint is most certainly flammable. When a fire takes hold, it can be very difficult to put out, so every sailor on board is trained not just how to fight fires, but how to be part of a team of firefighters, from the investigators looking for hot spots to the team using the fire hoses or other firefighting tools, to the scene leader, all the way up to the commanding officer. It’s a deadly serious matter, because on ships, it’s not if a fire will happen, but when. So while there’s a hundred different ways a fire can start on a Navy ship, it’s often those layers of paint that keep the fire going.
Case in point: look again at the picture at the top. The fire started in a cargo hold on the lower decks, and two days later it was raging out of the superstructure. This means that every compartment in between is burnt to a crisp.
Full disclosure: this is a bit personal to me. On November 1st, 1983, I was serving in one of the aft engine rooms on the USS Ranger (CV 61) when a fire broke out in a forward engine room due to a fuel oil leak. Here is a good reference for that deployment (the “cruise from hell”), but the writer is wrong about there being no one killed. Ten died. I knew one of them. That fire was one of the reasons the Navy reestablished the “Damage Controlman” rating, whose entire job is to fight fire and flooding and train the rest of the crew to do the same.
But how can I possibly claim the command on board USS Bonhomme Richard screwed the pooch? Here’s a (partial) list:
- Whenever the ship is in port, regardless of how long it has been at sea or how eager the sailors are to go home to their spouses and children, there must be enough qualified personnel on board to enable the ship to (1) get the ship underway in case of emergency, and (2) ensure the security of the ship against hostiles, and (3) fight any fire or flooding casualties that may occur. The 160 sailors still on board should have been able to perform any and all of those.
- Damage Control training revolves around “what if” scenarios, one of which should have included “this is we do if the Halon fire suppression system is down.” When that fire broke out, the Damage Control (DC) team on board absolutely had to know the Halon system was down, and should have been trained and prepared to respond with every firefighting method at their disposal that didn’t involve Halon. One of those methods is directing every other sailor (most of whom would have been qualified firefighters) on board in attacking that fire. Right now, those commissioned officers responsible for the training and discipline of the DC personnel —are sweating bullets. They know their careers are hanging on a thread.
- The OOD — Officer Of The Day — is responsible for everything that happens when the ship is in port, in the absence of the captain (CO) and the executive officer (XO). That officer should have been fully capable of taking command of the situation in a timely manner, no matter the time of day. That officer’s career is also in jeopardy.
- The commissioned officer responsible for the compartment where the fire started will likely get a letter of reprimand for not ensuring that his or her departmental personnel kept the space clean and free of fire hazards.
- The Chief Engineer (CHENG) is responsible for the training and discipline of every engineer on board, for the material condition of all engineering spaces and equipment, and for necessary logistical support. The Damage Control Division and all their duties are also directly under his purview. The XO bears the same responsibility, but for the whole ship and crew. They seem to have failed in their respective responsibilities — otherwise, the fire would never have gotten out of control in the first place.
- And the CO will in all likelihood be removed from command, because a Navy captain is responsible for everyone and everything, for the good order and discipline of the crew. I’ve seen captains both good and bad. Without exception, the good ones held even the highest-ranking officers to a high standard. The bad ones…didn’t. Sure, there will always be no-good individuals and even small groups, but when the crew as a whole fails to protect the ship, it is always, always because the captain failed in his or her duty to maintain good order and discipline. When the next captain reports on board to take command, the other commissioned officers — from the XO down to the newest Ensign — are going to be in for a very hard time. It will suck to be them.
After the fire is extinguished and compartments cleared for entry (i.e. people can breathe), the investigation will begin. It will include not only discovering the physical cause for the fire, but especially all the factors that led to the fire spreading out of control e.g. lack of training, lack of discipline, lack of coordination between departments, deficiencies in procedure, and so forth. It’s going to take months.
Afterwards, there will in all likelihood be a Board of Inquiry concerning the fire. When the captain reports to the Board members, they will ask, “When the fire began, who had the conn?” It does not matter where the captain was, whether at an official function at the Pentagon, asleep at home, or at a bar, or even in the hospital; the captain will reply, “I was at the conn.” Yes, this statement will be physically false, but the captain is still responsible for ensuring that if he suddenly fell off the face of the Earth, the officers and crew of the ship are trained and disciplined enough to do everything he would do if he were physically there. While a Navy captain is the closest thing America has to a king (no, I’m not kidding), with that power comes perhaps the strictest standard of professionalism and conduct any American ever experiences.
Even if there is no Board of Inquiry, the Navy will uphold that standard, which means the career of the captain of the USS Bonhomme Richard is almost certainly toast. If the ship had been lost, then that captain’s name would have become a byword of how not to captain a Navy vessel.
That’s a brutally harsh tradition, one that we inherited directly from the Royal Navy, but that tradition— more than any other single factor — is what gave England and America command of the waves for over four centuries.