Navy: Sailor suspected of starting fire that destroyed ship on San Diego Bay

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SAN DIEGO — Military officials are bringing charges against a sailor suspected of starting the destructive Navy ship fire that burned for four days in San Diego last year and ultimately led to the vessel’s decommissioning.

The U.S. Navy said last August that the July 2020 blaze on the USS Bonhomme Richard was a suspected arson and that a sailor had been questioned as part of the investigation, but little more about the case was disclosed in the months that followed. On Thursday, Navy authorities announced their criminal investigation had turned up enough evidence to consider court-martial charges against a sailor who served on the warship.

“Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesperson for the U.S. 3rd Fleet, wrote in a statement. “The Sailor was a member of Bonhomme Richard’s crew at the time and is accused of starting the fire.”

Robertson said an “impartial hearing officer” will make recommendations for a potential further trial.

More details about the evidence discovered during the Navy’s investigation were not immediately shared. As the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Andrew Dyer reports, a sailor was sent to the brig last fall in connection with the case for what the military describes as “pretrial confinement.” A lawyer representing that service member told Dyer his client was the same person charged Thursday.

The 22-year-old amphibious assault ship burned for more than four days after flames broke out in a lower storage area. More than 400 sailors assisted federal firefighters in putting out the blaze and dozens of people, including sailors and civilian firefighters, had suffered minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation by the end of the firefight.

It’s considered the Navy’s worst U.S. warship fire outside of combat in recent memory.

The Navy announced in November that it would send the San Diego-based vessel to the scrapyard because repairs to the ship after the fire would be too costly. The cost of repairs was estimated to be between $2.5 billion and $3.2 billion. The Navy said decommissioning cost about $30 million.

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