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Navy investigation reveals failures that led to warship arson fire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An internal investigation has revealed that a series of mistakes fueled the fire that destroyed a navy warship last summer. One sailor has been charged with arson for setting that fire, which burned for five days aboard the ship docked in San Diego for maintenance. Now, top Navy officials and additional members of the crew are being blamed for failures that led to the loss of the ship.

Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego is following the story. And Steve, tell us what the Navy's been doing since this fire happened a year ago.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: So several things have been happening. There's a criminal investigation. In July, they charged a low-ranking sailor with arson - 20-year-old seaman Ryan Sawyer Mays. He's scheduled to appear in court next month.

There are several other investigations that happen whenever a ship is lost. Two reports that came out today are a command investigation and a separate report that looks at the history of Navy ship fires dating back to 2008. And the report reveals that the Navy really has refused to learn from the - from past arsons.

SHAPIRO: So what did we learn about this fire?

WALSH: So in nearly 500 pages, the report highlights the confusion in the early hours of the fire onboard the amphibious landing ship. Sailors up the chain of command did not quickly acknowledge the extent of the fire. They kept sending sailors back to check the progress of the blaze, but those sailors didn't actually start fighting the fire.

The ship was in San Diego for extensive maintenance. Most of the Bonhomme Richard's crew was not on board. The roughly 130 sailors who were left didn't use the ship's own firefighting equipment. Some of that equipment was disabled, but the report found that sailors didn't know how to use a sprinkler system that was working. There were cases of smoke inhalation because people did not put on oxygen masks.

No one from the ship even called for help. Instead, a Navy dispatcher monitoring their radios called for outside firefighters. And when the - once those firefighters arrived, no one told them where the fire was or the best way to get on board the ship. That fire burned for five days.

But this morning, Admiral Bill Lescher, vice chief of naval operations, says despite the Navy's assertion that this is arson, he sees the loss of the Bonhomme Richard as preventable and wholly unacceptable.

SHAPIRO: And what about the other fires that you said this investigation looked into?

WALSH: So, you know, this is very similar to the USS Miami that was destroyed under similar circumstances. The Navy looked back at fires all the way back to 2008. They found many of the worst fires actually happen while ships are in port when the ships don't have their full crews. The Navy says they train for fires when ships are underway, but not during these times of transition. The report blames the lack of basic training. There were similar findings a few years ago after collisions involving two separate Navy ships - the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald.

The report specifically says the Navy remains vulnerable to inside threats like arson. There were changes put into place after the USS Bonhomme Richard fire. They also implemented a series of inspections for ships undergoing maintenance. But the report says those changes by themselves aren't enough.

SHAPIRO: Has the Navy said what it's going to do to prevent events like this from happening again?

WALSH: Well, it's a - yeah, I mean, that's the question here. The problems are long-standing. The report acknowledges that the Navy has had a hard time remembering the lessons that it's learned. The Navy is going to elevate the Naval Safety Center and give it more authority. Meanwhile, the report lists 36 officers after being - are being referred for further action, including the captain of the ship and various commanders, although two of the admirals that are listed by name have actually retired.

SHAPIRO: Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego. Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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