CNO Briefs the Press in San Diego Following the Fire Aboard USS Bonhomme Richard

by Chief of Naval Operations Public Affairs
17 July 2020
Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday briefs the press following the fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego, July 17, 2020.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL M. GILDAY: Good afternoon. I’m the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, and I’m here with Admiral Phil Sobeck, the Expeditionary Strike Group 3 commander. Phil has been the local commander here at the pier for the fire since its outbreak on Sunday. 

Since Sunday, we’ve been working tirelessly to get this fire under control, and I’m glad to say that all known fires in the ship have been extinguished as of yesterday. The ship is stable. 

I’d like to thank all of those who have played a role in combating the fire onboard Bonhomme Richard for these past days. We appreciate the quick and immediate response of over 400 sailors from 16 San Diego Bay ships, helicopter crews from our Squadron HSC-3 over in North Island, our Coast Guard partners, local and federal firefighters, and other industry experts who have helped us over the past days. 

A big thank you to the people of San Diego, of National City, Coronado, and all the other communities in San Diego that have continued support. It’s truly been an all-hands effort, and we are grateful. 

This morning, I had the opportunity to visit the USS Bonhomme Richard. I wanted to see the ship firsthand, the extent of the damage. I also wanted to talk to those who fought the fire. I also wanted to visit the Emergency Operations Center, which was really our command-and-control node for this incident, and meet with several sailors and civilians who have fought this fire relentlessly. 

As we move forward, there will be thorough investigations that will determine the next steps in a variety of areas. Make no mistake: We will follow the facts of what happened here, we’ll be honest with ourselves, and we’ll get after it as a Navy. 

My intention is for the investigations to be made available to the public when they are completed. Additionally, our fleet – our four-star fleet commanders issued a message a few days ago that directs every ship in the Navy to ensure that our equipment is ready, that our people are well trained, and that our procedures are rehearsed so we can all learn from this tragedy. 

Just a few other remarks, if I would. As I walked through the ship today this morning, I essentially went four decks below the flight deck and then went up to the flight deck. I took a look at the superstructure. I was able to get a good sense of the extent of the damage, and the damage is extensive. There is, obviously, electrical damage to the ship. There’s structural damage to the ship and mechanical damage to the ship that we need to assess in much more detail before we make a final determination of next steps. 

I know that everybody is interested in the future service of this ship. I am a hundred percent confident that our defense industry can put this ship back to sea. But having said that, the question is, should we make that investment in a 22-year-old ship? And I’m not going to make any predictions until we take a look at all the facts and we follow the facts and we can make reasoned recommendations up the chain of command on the future steps, any repair efforts – future repair efforts with Bonhomme Richard. 

The biggest takeaway for me today was really the people. And in particular, I went into a theater where I met with fire crews that are getting ready to go aboard the ship. The words that – as I left that theater, it was quite a humbling experience to meet with them. The average age was in the early 20s, but an even mix of male and females. And as I spoke to them and I asked them to tell me some of their stories, a very humble group. But as they spoke to me, it became obvious to me their resiliency, their fearlessness, their confidence, and, lastly, their competence were four words that I could use to describe the sailors in that group. And they represent – there were probably 150 in the room that represent more than 400 that have gone into the fire again and again and again. 

In particular, one petty officer that I singled out, she’s a third class petty officer. I don’t know her exact age. Her name is ABH3 Craig. She’s an aviation boatswain’s mate. She has been into the fire seven times. She was getting ready to go in for the eighth time. And to hear her talk about her preparedness for this incident – the fact that the training that she had in the Navy since boot camp, where it’s a(n) absolute priority that every sailor and every officer be able to fight fires and to combat flooding – that that training set the – set the foundation for the way she operated and behaved and acted over the past several days. 

She was very proud of what she did and the teamwork that was involved with these small teams that were going in to fight the fire. And they were a mixture of sailors from the Bonhomme Richard, sailors from other ships, federal and local firefighters, in an environment where you could really only see two feet in front of you, there was no lighting, there was deep heavy smoke. Most of you saw that smoke coming off the ship on Sunday and Monday. And to go into that environment again, and again, and again – temperatures at some point in excess of 1,000 degrees. One federal firefighter told me that the temperature recorded as 1,200 degrees on Monday. 

We really thought that we had this fire under control – had the potential to have the fire under control and out as early as Sunday night. There are two things I think, having walked through the ship and listened to the firefighters, that struck me as major impediments to that happening. The first was the wind coming off of the bay. And this fire probably couldn’t have been at a worse point on the ship in terms of its source that allowed it to spread up elevator shafts, as an example, up exhaust stacks, as an example, to take that fire up into the superstructure and then forward. And so I think that the wind was significant factor. 

I also think that the series of explosions on the ship – I’m told that one in particular could be heard 13 miles away – were also significant factors that caused the commanding officer, who was really looking at safety first. He needed to save the ship, but he needed to balance that with the safety of the firefighters. And so there were times when he had to back those firefighters off the ship. At one point, the explosion was so great that it blew debris across the ship – across the pier and onto the ship that was across the way. And so I think that the situation was very tenuous. I think that the commanding officer made some very sound decisions in terms of how to attack a fire very deliberately. 

I think, again, the teamwork involved from a number of different agencies, I think belies the fact that the training that we do on a recurring basis, week by week, with federal fire pays off in an incident like this. We have not seen a fire of this magnitude in a Navy ship in recent memory, at least in my career. So very extensive in terms of – in terms of the damage and the intensity. But I go back to – the main takeaway for me this morning was really the people. And we ought to be proud of them. And the parents of those sailors ought to be proud of them in terms of how they stood up and acted. If anybody has any doubts about this generation of sailors, soldier, airman and Marine, at least for me, they should be put to rest by the heroic and courageous actions of those sailors and those federal firefighters over the past five days. 

So with that, I’m happy to take your questions. 

STAFF: We’ll go to Julie Watson, AP, first. 

Q: Yeah. I was wondering if you could tell us the timeline that we’re looking at. How long will it take to determine the damage on the ship, how long will the investigation take? You know, all the different timelines that we’re looking at coming up? 

ADM. GILDAY: So there’ll be – that’s a good question. There’ll be a series of three different investigations. And they have to be synchronized. So the first is the safety investigation that has to occur. And that’s part and parcel of any incident that we have on a ship. That’ll be led by Naval Sea Systems Command. Naval Criminal Investigative Service will also lead an investigation, as we always do, to make sure there’s no malfeasance at the root of the fire. 
And the third is what we call command investigation that will take a look at several echelons in terms of where are the procedures – do we have the right procedures in place? Did we react correctly to the fire? Were there things that we could have done differently? Were there things that we should have had in place that we didn’t have in place? What did we do right? What did we not do right? And that’ll be an important investigation as well. 

And the last thing that’ll actually be – that’s beginning now as an assessment to take a look at structural, electrical, mechanical damage with experts from industry who actually built the ship, with experts from our public shipyard in Norfolk that actually designed the ship, and experts from Naval Sea Systems Command who have seen structural damage on ships from incidents – from like incidents before. So they’ll be making that determination, this last assessment, on what the next steps are for whether we repair or whether we don’t. 

STAFF: Andrew Dyer, U-T. 

Q: My question is about maintenance availabilities for ships. You know, the fire on the Miami, part of the causal factors was the ducting and cabling that you run through scuttles and hatches. I don’t know how you do maintenance on the ship here, so without doing that is there just a level of assume risk for maintenance, or how do you address that? How do you do that? 

ADM. GILDAY: So that’s a good question. So we have the ship in maintenance, or mitigation plans in place that the CO and Fed Fire take a look at for every ship, it’s a little bit different. There are quick disconnects in some of those hatches. I can’t speak in any detail to the procedures or the plans that were in place for Bonhomme Richard, but I will tell you that that plan is one that’s agreed upon together by the CO of Bonhomme Richard, who has ultimate responsibility, but also Fed Fire, who assists us with any kind of incidents one base. And they train to those – they train to those plans and to those procedures with respect to the mitigations in place, for every ship’s a little bit different in terms of how it’s going to be written. 

STAFF: Gidget from USNI. 

Q: Hey, sir. Thank you very much. I’m interested in, you know, your first thoughts when you realized and you were told that there was a fire on the ship, and what you thought when you saw the first images. It was pretty significant, a lot of smoke billowing out and a lot of unknowns at that time. What was something going through your mind, and what would have been the first priorities in that first day or two? 

ADM. GILDAY: So, for me, safety was the number one priority. I was assured right off the bat that that was the main priority of the commander on the ground as well. The main question I had back in Washington was whether or not we had the right resources in place for the commander to do everything he had to do to get the fire under control. What I didn’t realize at the time, what I realized today when I was talking to the sailors in particular, is that we did not have to make any phone calls to make people to respond to this fire. We had sailors responding in numbers that stayed on scene for days. And we had to actually have many of them – we had to order many of them to go home. And so we had response from all over the community. People were moving to the sound of gunfire, if you will. And so the initial concerns that I had about resources turned out to not be an issue at all. The biggest issue was safety. 

Q: An earlier report was that this incident was going to force the Navy to reevaluate itself. Can you expand on that? 

ADM. GILDAY: Sure. And so with an incident of this magnitude, you don’t want to have another one like it. So I’m not waiting for this to happen potentially again. You know, maintenance – ships are a risky place to work. Maintenance availabilities are higher risk. And so that’s why the fleet commanders have gone out, and they’ve gone out with a very detailed message to say: Look, within the next five days I want every CO of every ship to assess the training levels of their people, to assess whether or not their equipment is adequate in terms of operability, and in terms of placement, and in terms of numbers, right? So that they have the right resources in place if there’s a fire. 

And the last piece of it was whether or not the procedures they have in place – to do an assessment of the procedures they have in place, to red team them if you will, to make sure that they’re adequate. So on board ships we’re doing fire drills every day. We’re doing flooding drills every day. And so this is happening across the waterfront, that it’s just part and parcel of what every duty section does every day. But it does – and as good as you always think that you are, you’re never as good as you think you are. And so that’s the real takeaway, to force these COs to just take a sharper look at how they are positioned right now, in whatever unique environment that they’re in, to make sure that their crews are ready to go. 

Q: Hello, Melissa Adan, NBC 7. How are the sailors doing? This is – was their home that’s been taken from them. ADM. 

GILDAY: So for the sailors of Bonhomme Richard, it’s a gut punch. So they’re sailors. Their home – they identify with that ship, right, with these ball caps,. They mean something. The names of those ships mean something to those sailors. As you said, this is their home. This is where they’re going to fight from, right, if they have to go to sea. And so for every one of them it’s a personal loss. And so right now they’re dealing with – they’re dealing with the heat of the moment in terms of making sure that the environment is safe onboard the ship so that they can get aboard and start cleaning out the debris, in terms of the deck, and be ready for the next steps, whatever they might be. But we’re keeping a close eye on it. We’re very conscious of that fact. 

STAFF: All right, I’ll take one more question right here. 

Q: You missed the response of the firefighters and the sailors. So what’s missing here? Do you have enough sailors onboard to fight a fire that could get out of control so quickly? How much training do you have with surrounding fire departments, which I assume don’t have a lot of experience fighting fires on ships, yet they had to respond to this one? 

ADM. GILDAY: I’ll take the last question first. So with respect to fed fire, we’re working very, very closely with them. I talked to the fed fire chief this morning, and I talked to the local commander that worked very closely with Bonhomme Richard. He graded the teamwork as terrific. And so he felt – 

Q: I mean surrounding departments, like San Diego fire. Like, who had to respond? 

ADM. GILDAY: So surrounding fire departments deal with unique environments each and every day. And so my understanding, and we’ll find out as a result of the investigations, whether we need to do anything to improve upon that. So I can’t answer that directly with respect to Bonhomme Richard right now. My sense is that the response was good, but we can always do better. And we need to take a hard look at it. 

And the first question was about the size of the duty section. And that’s something we’re going to take a look at. And so whether or not we had an adequate number of people on board for this particular – for this particular environment, given the fact that the ship is at a certain point in maintenance, that certain equipment could have been – could have been inoperable in terms of firefighting equipment, and we need to go through this, catalogue it all, and get an understanding of whether or not we had it right. And if not, how do we quickly adjust across the fleet to make sure it doesn’t happen again? 

STAFF: All right, everybody. Thank you so much for coming. We appreciate the time. 

(END) 

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