USS Bonhomme Richard Fire – Was it Arson Or Widespread Safety Failures?
by Megan Rose (ProPublica) On the morning of July 12, 2020, the first orange flickers of destruction took hold in the bowels of the hulking USS Bonhomme Richard as it...
The US Navy has used a trail of misinformation to stonewall Congress and divert funding from working ships to naval aviation and expensive/sexy warships like the failed USS Zumwalt.
By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Over the past few decades, the United States Navy has increasingly abandoned the unsexy working ships it once mastered and deployed around the world. Previously, the Navy had a large fleet of salvage tugs, but now they only have two, and only two Hospital Ships, two Submarine Tenders, and two Ocean Tugs. Some ship classes have been scrapped altogether including Fireboats or, as the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro inaccurately called them in a letter to congress, “fire boats.”
In the letter, dated April 8th, the Navy responded to a congressional inquiry questioning why no fireboats are maintained in San Diego Harbor, home to hundreds of billions of dollars in warships and taxpayer infrastructure, along with vital shipyards. This letter came after maritime experts, including gCaptain, criticized the Navy for not having fireboats on hand to fight a fire aboard the large amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard (BHR) in 2020.
“Modern fireboats are impressive and so essential to protecting ships that Long Beach purchased them even though the next city north, Los Angeles, already had a state-of-the-art fireboat, and even though the construction cost for the two boats exceeded $50 million,” we wrote in July of last year. “Long Beach is not alone. Nearly every large commercial harbor worldwide now has state-of-the-art fireboats on duty, but the world’s largest US Naval Bases doesn’t own a single one.”
In the official report attached to Del Toro’s letter to Congress, the Navy states. “We assess that the lack of dedicated fire boats did not have an appreciable effect on the BHR incident or loss of this ship. And, in fact, waterborne firefighting capability, readily available on Navy tug boats, was brought to bear in this incident and has been formally accepted into Navy installation emergency response plans. The Navy does not intend to request or pursue dedicated fire boats at this time.”
This report is shocking to commercial mariners who have worked with fireboats for several reasons. First, the letter is short. The sum total of the US Navy’s investigation into this severe inquiry is written on a page and a half of double-spaced text. The Navy, which is struggling to build enough ships, loses a critical ship worth billions of dollars, Congress demands an answer as to why no fireboats were available to help save the ship, and the Navy responds with an investigation so cursory it can be summed up in just 600 words. (I am not sure if gCaptain supports emoji, but I will try: angry face:)
But wait, there is more. The 600 words are not accurate. It contains blatant lies.
“And, in fact, waterborne firefighting capability,” says the report, “Readily available on Navy tug boats, was brought to bear in this incident.”
But Navy tugboats were neither readily available nor used in the BHR fire. Nothing was “brought to bear” in the critical early stage of the fire. Two hours into the incident, civilian captains aboard commercial tugboats owned by a private company, begged to help fight the fire but instead, the Navy brought in laughably small police boats with tiny water cannons built to fight small fires on recreational boats, not 844′ warships.
Much later, after the fire had burned out of control, these civilian tugboats were allowed to replace the laughably ineffective police boats.
Secretary Del Toro’s report claim that “Navy” tug boats were “brought to bear in this incident” is false and a blatant lie to Congress.
For clarity’s sake here are the differences between real fireboats and Del Toro’s “fire boats.”
The 50,000 gallons per minute FDNY fireboat Three Forty Three.
This is Long Beach’s modern $25 million 45,000 gallons per minute fireboat(left) next to an old 10,000 gallons per minute fireboat (right).
Tiny 36 foot San Diego Harbor Police Boats trying to fight a fire aboard the 844-foot navy ship USS Bonhomme Richard
Foss civilian tugboat Jamie Ann fighting the BHR fire with her 900 gallons per minute fire pump.
The most significant damage of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake occurred when many of San Francisco’s water lines broke, and firefighters had no water to battle fires that broke out throughout the city. Most troubling was that flame swept wooden piers blocked residents’ escape and no water could be found to save them.
“A major deficiency in 1906 was the lack of a fireboat for pumping large volumes from San Francisco Bay,” said the post-earthquake report. “Chief Sullivan in 1905 had proposed that the city purchase a fireboat, but the request was denied.”
What saved the city and provided the San Francisco Fire Department (SSFD) with the water needed to put out the dock fires, which allowed half of the city’s residents to escape by boat across the bay to Oakland and Berkeley? It was US Navy fireboats!
SFFD, in 1906 was finally able to establish a water supply along Van Ness Avenue, a natural east-west fire break as it is 150 feet wide. Water supply was from U.S. Navy fireboats at the foot of Van Ness Avenue.
Immediately after the fire, the city determined the minimum pumping capacity needed to fight ship fires and augment city water supplies was 10,000 gallons per minute. That was one hundred years ago and long before the US Navy sold its last fireboat for scrap. Today the need is much greater, yet the most capable civilian tugboat in San Diego harbor is the approximately 3,500 gallon per minute Edison Chouest tractor tugs Del Toro refers to in the report.
The official report repeatedly says that managing water was a problem for the firefighters working aboard the BHR, a problem high pumping capacity fireboats could have solved, but there are many more factors to consider when using civilian tugboats rather than Navy fireboats:
(Authors Note: The Civilian Tugboats crews went above and beyond the call of duty fighting the BHR fire. Why hasn’t the US Navy given each of those sailors a medal? Answer: Because the Navy never asked the Maritime Administration to. Why? Why are US Merchant Mariners facing harrowing conditions so infrequently awarded medals by MARAD or the US Navy?)
I could go on, but the Navy knows the importance of training for events. What the BHR report shows more than anything is a lack of training and working relationship between ship crews, base personnel, Navy federal fire personnel, tugboat crews, and local firefighters. Working together with regular drills will help, but civilian tugboats are working vessels and can not always participate in drills.
The civilian mariners who worked aboard the tugboats that did help fight the BHR fire prove the ingenuity and capability are there, the question is, will the Navy pay to equip and train crews in areas like firefighting mutual assistance communications and HAZMAT. Will it have contingency plans for medical injuries? Will it pay death benefits if a civilian tugboat crew is killed fighting a naval fire? These are just some of the questions Del Toro’s “fire boat” report to congress needs to answer but clearly does not.
More troubling than the fireboat report itself is a pattern of disinformation the US Navy and Department Of Defense have provided Congress when it comes to working ships. In 2015 it told Congress that it had the capability to recover the VDR aboard the sunken American flagship El Faro, but it ended up taking them 10-months to locate and document the wreckage and retrieve the VDR, much longer than experts expected the audio tapes to survive at the bottom of the ocean. It has repeatedly underfunded both Military Sealift Command and MARAD sealift ships which has resulted in a rusting and broken supply ship fleet with massive capacity shortages. For years the Navy repeatedly pushed concerns about icebreaker unavailability off to the US Coast Guard until being forced to work on a joint icebreaker program. The Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lied to Congress this year when he said after the Navy’s Red Hill Bunker facility leaked, poisoning civilians’ homes and even children, that lost fuel capacity could be “dispersed at sea.” He did this knowing full well that the United States Navy does not have enough tankers to meet current demand capacity, much less take over for major tank closures. They lied about the security concerns behind using a Chinese-built ship and foreign crews to recover the Navy’s most important fighter plane. They lied because they did not have the salvage ships (and possibly not the expertise) to recover it themselves and did not have the gumption to ask MARAD or our large fleet of American offshore support ships to help.
The US Navy has been playing games and dragging its feet with Congress for over a decade on Salvage ships to repalce the two remaining Safeguard class ships which are now 36 years old. Since 2010 the US Navy has told Congress it planned to buy eight special mission salvage ships in the new USNS Navy-class T-ATS. The latest budget published in March, however, only allocates money for one new T-ATS. One. One new working salvage ship to cover the entire 71 percent of the Earth’s surface that is water. One.
The Navy would rather contract a Chinese-built ship than ask MARAD and US Merchant Mariner for help doing a job every US Merchant Mariner knows the Navy should be able to accomplish on its own.
Why? Every US Merchant Mariner knows that MARAD is underfunded and broken… and the US Navy HATES asking US MERCHANT MARINERS for help. They HATE to even acknowledge our existence or thank us for our service.
Also troubling is that the Navy has lied repeatedly to Congress that they have fixed problems with watch standing and readiness in the wake of the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain tragedies. Lies so blatant and bold that the journalist who uncovered the lies won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for discovering how little the Navy has done to improve conditions and readiness aboard ships in the wake of those disasters.
Disasters that happened when the Navy collided with COMMERCIAL ships.
How do the US Navy and officials like Del Toro get away with telling bold lies to Congress? The answer comes from a lack of expertise within Congress and the lack of external oversight. In this case, as in others, Congress asked the Navy to provide solutions to its own failures. What does the US Navy know about fireboats? It hasn’t owned or operated one in decades.
The solution, in this case, is simple. Congress should not ask the US Navy for its opinion on the importance of fireboats. It should ask professional firefighters in port cities like New York these questions. Or they can ask Coast Guard Officers who work with them routinely:
But asking experts may not be possible either because the Navy has a history of fighting back against external reports. In 2017 Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer did ask five commercial companies in the maritime business to assist with an independent investigation into the underlying causes of the spate of collisions that have cost the lives of 17 sailors and hundreds and millions of dollars in damage. That effort, however, was largely rejected by the Navy and the Chief Of Naval Operations, who dismissed the effort as unnecessary and inferior to the Navy’s own investigation report. A report, the first copy of which, was not in-depth or impartial.
And it’s not just the BHR “fire boat” report that is troubling. According to maritime historian Sal Mercogliano, who is a fireman and former ship’s officer, both the firefighting response and the official US Navy BHR incident report itself deserves harsh criticism.
Congress must realize that the US Navy does not have enough, does not have the desire to build enough, and does not properly maintain or want working ships. Not just fireboats but all unsexy working ships like submarine tenders, tankers, ammunition ships, and sealift ships. It prefers sleek and sexy $8 billion ships like the USS Zumwalt (which has turned into a rusty mess) and the cool-looking and expensive LCS which is a disaster.
Congress, what more proof of this do you need than the fact it treats Merchant Mariners poorly, denies them thanks or basic veteran status and calls them by the ostracizing and derogative acronym CIVMAR, which outrightly denies the fact they… people who are correctly called US Merchant Mariners – not CIVMARS, are not members of the team… are equals. It is a derogatory term CIVMAR because, while the Navy claims it’s because these mariners are civil servants, most assume it means they are civilians. Civilians in military culture don’t take risks and are not part of the team.
Asking the foxes who raided the hen house to investigate the hen house burglary is not the way to fix this problem—asking the Navy to comment on sealift, ocean logistics, fireboats, tugboats, salvage, or any of the missions it once did well but has long since ignored is worse. The word Merchant Marine is not in any Navy strategy documents, and their relationship with the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) is tenuous at best.
Congress must understand that, with the help of the US Navy, White House and Congress, MARAD has suffered decades of decline, underfunding, and loss of influence.
(Military Sealift Command is only doing marginally better. )
It’s not just active Merchant Mariners, it’s our veterans too. Proud veterans who risked their lives delivering the goods in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraqi the last American Merchant Marine Veterans annual gala there were Admirals, and diplomats, and color guards and representatives from several European countries. Medals were given out by several nations including Russia but the US Navy did not send a single uniformed officer to the event. This painful rip between US Navy and US Merchant Marine officers, between the budgets for Top Combatants and working ships – needs to be repaired right now.
And what the fox in this hen house is hiding more than anything is the simple fact that if we don’t have enough sealift ships to support carrier groups today, tankers to compensate for Red Hill today, Navy salvage ships to help unstick the Ever Forward today, fireboats to save the Bonhomme Richard today.
When the Navy is forced to focus on working ships, it often tells Congress that working ships is the responsibility of US Maritime Administration (MARAD), a federal agency ostensibly equivalent to the FAA but with a fraction of the FAA’s influence and budget. The Navy does not support MARAD, but it likes to control it. The position of US Maritime Administrator is traditionally held by a commercial shipowner or captain, but President Obama left this critical position unfilled for years and then selected a former congressional staffer, David Matsuda. He was highly unpopular and was pushed out in 2013. Obama followed the appointment with a relatively low-ranking O6 navy submarine commander Chip Jaenichen.
The Trump administration appointed US Navy Rear Admiral Mark Buzby for the position. Buzby, while not a commercial mariner or shipowner, was a graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy and did know how to operate working ships. Buzby was popular but the US Navy did not stand by him in Congress or help him publish the combined Navy, US Merchant Marine, national maritime strategy he asked for.
On Monday the US Senate is voting on another former US Navy officer – Rear Admiral Ann Phillips – who, like Jaenichen, has zero experience in the commercial maritime world and shows no signs of understanding the importance of working ships.
Why does the Senate keep confirming presidential MARAD appointments of US Navy officers to a position overseeing commercial ships and working military sealift ships when the US Navy has repeatedly and overwhelmingly failed on this topic for decades?
What happens if China does attack?
Well ships will sink and supplies won’t reach the fight. In short, we are in deep trouble because the US Navy has sold Congress a superhero comic book story. A story where a few super ships with names like USS Zumwalt, equipped with super hypersonics are invincible and omnipotent. A world where even its own sailors are disposable and everyday working sailors on working ships are obsolete.
In addition to a lack of expertise in the Navy, there is also a lack of historical references. A Lack of available pumping capacity, firefighting, and salvage equipment was a major problem in the wake of Pearl Harbor. So was a lack of salvage ships.
Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg wrote several books on this topic after World War II providing instructions for Commanding Officers aboard whips like the BHR and the US Navy Strategic Planners. Advice that is still useful.
Today the US Navy has abrogated its responsibility and has transferred salvage duties to an overseas corporation. Privatizing emergency duties is dangerous but the Navy doesn’t have another choice considering it’s lack of salvage ships and equipment and the lack of fully American-owned salvage companies in the United States. Outsourcing may be an ok temporary solution if, and only if, the Navy has equipment for salvage masters to use and trains extensively with these private contractors.
Not only does the US Navy not have the equipment or training but does not even attend most commercial salvage conferences and seminars. At the largest conference for ship owners this year, the CMA Shipping conference, the heads of major salvage companies discussed the problems they face but not a single uniformed Navy Officer was in attendance.
During the salvage seminar the world’s most famous salvage master, Captain Nick Sloane, discussed the most critical element of salvage. “It’s all about time. How much time do we have to mitigate the problem,” said Sloane. “How long does it take to get heavy equipment on location? How long does it take to get the right equipment on location”
Sloane did not comment on the BHR fire, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the Navy took too long to get the wrong equipment (small police boats and, much later, commercial tugboats) on location and could not get the right equipment on location because it didn’t have it. Just like during Pearl Harbor, the US Navy did not have the salvage pumps, cascade systems, coupling, schematics, and more to fight this fire. And they certainly did not have the most valuable piece of equipment, a fully equipped modern 50,000 Gallons Per Hour fireboat with a dedicated and well-trained crew.
Captain John A Konrad V,
US Merchant Marine
Author’s Note To Congress: please don’t be so daft. Please stop believing the lies. The US Navy DOES need Fireboats. They need them NOW.
Author’s Note To Secretary Del Toro: they are “fireboats” not “fire boats”. That said, you promised me at The Navy League conference you would support working ships. We shook on it. I know this article is critical of your action, but we hold no resentment towards you. You are new to the job, have a lot on your plate, and there is a War in Europe. We all understand and are willing to give you slack. There is time to fix this, there is time to make good, but we need to start NOW. And the first step is to move past denial and acknowledge the US Merchant Mariners who are experts in their field may know more about certain topics than the Navy. It starts by hiring US Merchant Mariners in the Pentagon and giving them education at the Naval War College – both important because Admiral Gilday I am Not Ready For War – and sorting out the mess that is MARAD. It starts by killing the derogatory term CIVMAR and thanking them by their proper name “US Merchant Mariners”, especially those who sailed into war and were awarded medals by DOT but never got a single ribbon or even a handshake from the US Navy.
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