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Ravaged by fire, the Bonhomme Richard is bound for the scrapyard, Navy says

The Navy used helicopters for water drops over the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard in San Diego.
The Navy used helicopters for water drops over the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard in San Diego. The blaze injured at least 18 sailors.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Investigations continue into the cause of the fire, which burned for almost five days and smothered south San Diego County in noxious smoke

A fire that raged for almost five days in July has doomed the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard to the scrapyard, Navy officials said Monday.

The ship will be decommissioned within a year and will be scrapped, a Navy official told reporters during a conference call. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The cost of repairing the ship was estimated to be between $2.5 billion and $3.2 billion, Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage said. The cost and time involved were deemed to be too much by Navy leadership.

“After thorough consideration, the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations have decided to decommission the USS Bonhomme Richard,” said Ver Hage, the commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Center.

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The Navy looked at all possible courses of action to “make sure we understood the art of the possible,” Ver Hage said. Officials assessed every space on the ship, and Ver Hage said about 60% of it — the flight deck, the island and many of the decks immediately below them — would need to be completely replaced.

The Navy looked at three options for the ship — repairing it to full mission capabilities, refurbishing it as a tender or hospital ship, or decommissioning it, Ver Hage said.

In addition to the expense, rebuilding the Bonhomme Richard would take five to seven years, Ver Hage said. To reconfigure the ship would cost more than $1 billion — more than the cost of building a brand-new tender or hospital ship.

Decommissioning will cost the Navy about $30 million and will take between nine months and one year, Ver Hage said. He talked of possibly towing it to storage or to shipbreakers in the Gulf of Mexico, adding that no contract has been awarded.

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The decision to decommission the ship was made by Navy leaders just before Thanksgiving, Ver Hage said, and Navy leadership and Congress were briefed on the decision Monday.

The fire on the 844-foot ship began about 8:30 a.m. on July 12 and sent acrid plumes of smoke into the San Diego sky for two days.

By the following Tuesday morning, the smoke plume was noticeably smaller, although the fire smell stayed in neighborhoods nearest the base for another two days.

An email from the Navy’s top admiral days after the blaze revealed the ship had fire, smoke and water damage on 11 of its 14 decks. Some decks were warped and bulging and, in some spaces, completely gutted.

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Officials have said the fire began in the ship’s lower vehicle storage area. Arson is suspected. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service searched the home of a Bonhomme Richard sailor in August, according to an ABC 10News report. A San Diego Navy official declined to comment Monday on the sailor or the status of the multiple ongoing investigations.

Emergency crews responded to a fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard on Sunday, July 12,
Emergency crews responded to a fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard in San Diego on July 12.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Early on, Navy leaders left open the possibility of repairing the ship.

“The survivability of the ship is there — it’s survivable,” said Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, the day the fire was extinguished. “It’s in stable condition all the way through. The ship can be repaired. Whether or not it will be ... is to be determined.”

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Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations and the Navy’s top officer, agreed at a San Diego news conference the day after the fire was out that the ship was salvageable.

“The question is should we make that investment into a 22-year-old ship,” he said.

Firefighting crews from 16 San Diego-based ships — more than 400 sailors — assisted federal firefighters from bases throughout Southern California around the clock to put out the blaze. Navy helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 dumped more than 1,500 buckets of water on the ship. Tug boats also shot water onto the vessel, cooling its hull.

Commissioned in 1998, the Bonhomme Richard was in dry dock at General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego last year and has been undergoing additional maintenance at San Diego Naval Base. Its last deployment was in 2018.

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The ship cost $761 million, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, and was at the end of a two-year, $250-million upgrade to accommodate the F-35B fighter. It is one of a handful of similarly equipped amphibious assault ships.

Defense officials have been eyeing mini-aircraft carriers such as the Bonhomme Richard as a way to keep the newest generation of fighters continuously available in the Pacific, as the U.S. counters strategic threats from China.

Amphibious assault ships are used to deploy Marines in amphibious landings. During operations, the ships conduct flight operations with helicopters and jet aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier and its replacement, the F-35 B Lightning.

The Bonhomme Richard had a crew of about 1,000 sailors. Typically, the majority of a ship’s crew will remain on board throughout the decommissioning process.

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In a statement Monday afternoon, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said the ship’s legacy will continue through the sailors who fought to save the vessel.

“Although it saddens me that it is not cost-effective to bring her back, I know this ship’s legacy will continue to live on through the brave men and women who fought so hard to save her, as well as the sailors and Marines who served aboard her during her 22-year history,” Braithwaite said.

Graphic depiction of the Bonhomme Richard

Dyer writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Updates:

4:00 PM, Nov. 30, 2020: This story was updated with comments from Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite.


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