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The Navy arson trial for the burning of USS Bonhomme Richard will soon start


A Navy arson trial is about to get underway more than two years after fire destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard. The trial comes as the Navy continues to unravel why the fire on the warship became one of the worst peacetime disasters in its history. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Beginning on July 12, 2020, the USS Bonhomme Richard burned for nearly five days in San Diego Bay. Senior Chief Michael Robert Penny remembers it well.

MICHAEL ROBERT PENNY: It was horrifying. It was the biggest fire I've ever seen in my life. A lot of sailors did a lot of hard work to try and save that ship. And unfortunately, it was just too big. The fire was too large.

WALSH: Penny was off that Sunday morning. By the time he arrived at Naval Base San Diego, the ship was in flames. Penny became one of the Navy investigators on the origins of the fire. He hasn't spoken publicly about the disaster until now. The Bonhomme Richard was being renovated when the fire broke out. In addition, Penny says they were shorthanded that morning.

PENNY: Lack of experience, lack of training - that coupled with the loss of electrical power on board.

WALSH: When an explosion sent debris hurtling into the nearby USS Fitzgerald, commanders ordered the power to the pier cut so the ships could make an emergency exit, cutting power to firefighters. Darren Hall is with Miramar Fire Academy and a captain with the Coronado Fire Department with 25 years' experience. He says nothing compares with the Bonhomme Richard fire.

DARREN HALL: Not in my career - this has probably been the largest one I've been familiar with on the bay in recent memory.

WALSH: He says local firefighters are invited to train with the Navy, though Navy reports also say mutual aid agreements with local departments are decades old. Fires on board ships are so different, they aren't even part of the curriculum for beginning firefighters.

HALL: The first part is it's all metal, so your heat, that's going to be conducting through where you're walking on different floors of the ship. When you're looking for where the seat of the fire is, it could be deep inside of the ship.

WALSH: There are still key questions about how the Bonhomme Richard fire started. Ship fires are actually fairly common. Nonetheless, Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays is charged with arson and set to face a court martial later this month. His attorneys want to introduce evidence of another small fire that broke out on the nearby USS Essex that same morning. Gary Barthel was part of Mays' legal team. He says arson can be hard to prove, especially when there's extensive damage.

GARY BARTHEL: Mays has maintained his innocence throughout. And whether it can be proven that it was an arson or not, I think that's one area that needs to be processed.

WALSH: In military court, the admiral in charge has the final word. But one reason the case has taken so long to come to trial is a hearing officer actually ruled the Navy didn't have enough evidence to convict Mays.

BARTHEL: She did not believe, based on this evidence, that the government would be able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and recommended that the case not go to a general court martial.

WALSH: Penny, who investigated the fire, is now head of damage control on the USS Portland, a ship very similar to the USS Bonhomme Richard. Penny pushes the crew of his new ship.

PENNY: We do drills constantly. We train the crew constantly. I have changed the way that we do training on here. Every single sailor - from the captain down to the newest sailor on board - is required to don a firefighting ensemble.

WALSH: Penny worries that it could happen again.

PENNY: Every day is filled with some type of anxiety. You know, after seeing the BHR, I would be lying if I didn't say that it is - I am worried every moment.

WALSH: At least 20 officers and sailors were disciplined after the fire on the Bonhomme Richard. Meanwhile, the Navy waits for a jury to decide what caused the fire that destroyed the billion-dollar warship.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh