• Sun. Nov 29th, 2020

Sailor eyed in possible arson on Navy ship that burned for days

Investigators believe a massive fire that erupted on the Navy ship the USS Bonhomme Richard may have been intentionally set, and a Navy sailor has been identified as a possible suspect, two Defense officials confirmed Wednesday.

The new details in the investigation of the July fire were reported earlier Wednesday by KGTV, an ABC affiliate in San Diego where the amphibious assault ship is based.

Two Defense officials confirmed to NBC News that investigators now suspect arson.

But the investigation is ongoing, and a determination has not been made as to whether the sailor is an actual suspect in the fire.

The sailor was not named, and no additional details were released.

“The Navy will not comment on an ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the investigative process and all those involved. We have nothing to announce at this time,” Navy spokesman, Lt. Tim Pietrack, said in an email Wednesday night.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, with assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ national response team, is investigating the circumstances of the fire.

The fire started July 12 and was extinguished four days later after extensive damage

The ship, an amphibious assault ship that works to deploy elements of a Marine landing force, was based at Naval Base San Diego after spending six years in Japan.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday has praised the work of more than 400 sailors from 16 ships based in San Diego who helped fight the fire and pledged a thorough investigation.

He has previously said that restoring the USS Bonhomme Richard to its status as an amphibious assault ship, “could be too heavy a lift,” but there may be other options for how to restore it.

Eleven of the ship’s 14 decks were “devastated by the fire,” he said.

Shortly after the fires were extinguished, a Navy official said that if the ship was deemed unsalvageable it would cost $4 billion to replace.

Damage assessment is ongoing, Navy spokesperson Lt. Ryan Slattery said in an email Wednesday.

“Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is conducting thorough damage assessments to determine USS Bonhomme Richard’s hull and structural integrity and identify which components and systems can be repaired or require replacement, as well as an estimate of repair costs,” Slattery said.

“These assessments are ongoing, and NAVSEA’s findings will allow the Navy to make informed cost and schedule decisions regarding the future of the ship,” he said.

The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost $250 million when the fire broke out, NBC San Diego reported.

About 160 crew members were on board when the fire started, but all were accounted for.

More than 60 sailors and civilians suffered what were described as minor injuries, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, before the fire was extinguished.

An NCIS spokesman said that out of respect for the investigative process, the law enforcement agency does not comment or confirm details related to ongoing investigations.

Phil Helsel contributed.