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The Burning of the Bonhomme Richard


Navy report is out and it is unsparing:

A cascade of failures – from a junior enlisted sailor not recognizing a fire at the end of their duty watch to fundamental problems with how the U.S. Navy trains sailors to fight fires in shipyards – are responsible for the five-day blaze that cost the service an amphibious warship, according to an investigation into the July 2020 USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) fire reviewed by USNI News.

The investigation into the fire aboard Bonhomme Richard, overseen by former U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, found that the two-year-long $249 million maintenance period rendered the ship’s crew unprepared to fight the fire the service says was set by a crew member.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” Conn wrote in his investigation, which was completed in April and reviewed by USNI News this week.
“In the 19 months executing the ship’s maintenance availability, repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response.”

For folks interested in organizational theory and in normal accident theory there’s a lot here to unpack. The ship had repeatedly failed fire drills, the chains of responsibility for fire control were confused and unclear, and general knowledge of how to handle a fire in port was limited. Effectively there was about an hour after the initial recognition of the fire in which the ship could have been saved if proper procedure had been followed, but that hour was wasted and the destruction of the ship became an accomplished fact.

This kind of event is useful when thinking about the potential for nuclear weapons accidents. LHD-6 was a capital ship in the most well-resourced Navy in the world, and she burned down because a single arsonist was abetted by a flurry of mistakes. This sort of thing undoubtedly can happen in facilities that are more critical under conditions that could be more catastrophic.

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