WASHINGTON — The initial response to the July 2020 fire that destroyed the multibillion-dollar amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard was uncoordinated and hampered by confusion as to which admiral should cobble together Navy and civilian firefighters, according to new information from the then-head of Naval Surface Forces.
The discombobulation in those early hours meant sailors may have missed a small window to contain the fire in a storage area. One admiral who said he lacked authority to issue an order pleaded with the ship’s commanding officer to get back on the ship and fight the fire, when the CO and his crew were waiting on the pier. And when that admiral — now-retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown — found the situation so dire that he called on other another command to intervene, it refused, Brown said in an interview.
Brown, who led Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific from January 2018 to August 2020, told Defense News in June he set up an ad hoc chain of command to coordinate trying to save the ship that Sunday morning, after seeing lower-level leaders struggle to communicate or to fight the fire aggressively. The move came after the fleet’s operational chain of command declined to step in due to confusion over who had control over the ship.
An investigation into the fire, released in October 2021, outlined several failures leading up to the fire and during the response. But Brown’s comments offer additional details and a new perspective on how the fire response came together and what was left out of the formal investigation.
Brown said he is sharing his story with Defense News now as he faces a secretarial letter of censure. He was named in the investigation as contributing to the loss of the ship, but was cleared by what’s known as a Consolidated Disposition Authority in December. He said he was not interviewed for the investigation into the fire.
Capt. J.D. Dorsey, a spokesman for Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, told Defense News “the secretary is still in the process of reviewing the command investigation and has not yet made any final decisions on actions beyond what the CDA has imposed.”
The morning of the fire
Brown, as the type commander for surface ships, said he should have played a supporting role the morning the fire broke out. He scrambled to his Naval Base San Diego office that morning and began making calls, including to Naval Sea Systems Command to understand what risk the ship’s fuel tank posed and whether the ship needed to be towed out to sea.
But he grew concerned the ship’s crew and federal firefighters were squandering a limited opportunity to contain the fire in the lower vehicle storage area, where it originated. The investigation into the fire noted the ship’s crew was slow to call for help and did not take actions to prevent the fire from spreading to other areas of the ship.
So Brown called ship commanding officer, Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, who said he and the crew had left the ship and were on the pier. The investigation into the fire noted the crew pulled out of the ship twice during the firefight that morning.
Thoroman should have been coordinating with the base’s Federal Fire Department and the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center, collectively forming the incident command team, according to a 2018 Navy instruction laying out fire prevention and fire response responsibilities for ships in maintenance. Bonhomme Richard had been undergoing maintenance at the pier at the naval base.
Instead, Brown said, “I could just tell in his responses that he was unsure on how to coordinate the resources that were at his disposal. It was clear to me there was friction that was developing” between the Navy and civilian commands, with the federal firefighters having been pulled out of the ship multiple times and the Navy firefighters lacking the gear they needed to fully tackle the fire on their own.
With the Navy’s organization falling apart, he called the Expeditionary Strike Group 3 commander, Rear Adm. Phil Sobeck, around 11 a.m.
“Phil, you can tell me to eff off, because I’m not in your chain of command, but you have to get down to that pier and provide leadership and guidance because they’re all sitting at the end of the pier watching the ship burn,” Brown said he told Sobeck. “And he goes, ‘Admiral, I’m getting in the car, I’m on my way.’”
Brown took other actions during that time, including some outside his typical authorities as a type commander. He ordered destroyers Fitzgerald and Russell to leave the pier they shared with Bonhomme Richard, even if it meant damaging brows and cables, so no other ships would suffer fire damage.
But the firefighting itself was still disorganized, he said.
Brown directed his staff to contact U.S. 3rd Fleet around 12:30 p.m., but 3rd Fleet’s position was, “The ship’s in maintenance, it’s not our problem.”
Brown argues it was the fleet’s responsibility: During weekly meetings with PACFLT leadership, 3rd Fleet routinely briefed on the manning, training and equipping status of all the ships in maintenance, with Brown on the call in a supporting role.
A retired flag officer, who previously served in the San Diego region and understands the command and control structure there, also told Defense News 3rd Fleet should have been the organization to manage the failing efforts by the ship captain. The flag officer did not wish to speak on the record.
After the staff-level call failed, Brown set up a call with 3rd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, for the two three-stars to hash it out directly.
“I said, hey, Phil’s down there, but we have to formally establish a new command structure. And he told me he wasn’t going to do it because the ship was in maintenance and it’s not his problem. And I said fine.”
Defense News reached out to Conn to clarify his position that the Bonhomme Richard, as a ship in maintenance, was not under his command. Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, U.S. Navy Chief of Information, told Defense News that two policies — the OPNAVINST 3440.18 and the NAVSEA 8010 manual — “were not fully consistent, but they placed command and control responsibility on the administrative chain of command for a ship in this configuration. Third Fleet was the operational commander two echelons above the BHR.”
Vice Adm. Rich Brown said his staff reviewed these same two documents again in the weeks following the fire and again concluded that they were expected to play a supporting role, but that Pacific Fleet should have taken responsibility for the ship via its operational chain of command.
All the relevant leaders were already connected in a teleconference, so Brown went into the ad hoc command center in his office and told everyone Sobeck was in charge and made sure they all understood their supporting roles to assist Sobeck.
He then called the then-Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. John Aquilino.
“I told him what I had done, what I was seeing: the C2 degrading on the pier, there’s no focus of effort, people are off doing their own things. And I told him that I had asked Scott to take command and he said no. And I said ... ‘Phil now works for me, and I’ve got it.’”
“Absolutely, Rich, you got it, put the fire out,” the admiral replied, according to Brown.
Brown didn’t dispute the Navy’s accounting of the rest of the five days of firefighting as laid out in the investigation, but said the investigation’s accounting of how the command and control fell apart during a crisis is incomplete and the investigation itself was “fatally defective” without interviewing him or including a full picture of what will be a key lesson learned.
Flawed chain of command structures
The retired three-star said one of the reasons he wanted to share his perspective about the fire is because the same command and control flaw played a role in the 2017 collisions of destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain and the 2020 fire on Bonhomme Richard. Brown led the McCain investigation and participated in the Fitzgerald investigation, and he said one of the recommendations he made at the time was to reinstate a Cold War-era command structure that had two chains of command: one for ships in maintenance and the basic phase, led by a one-star admiral focused on ensuring they built up their readiness, and one for ships in advanced training and deployments, led by a one-star focused on employing their warfighting capability.
Brown said this setup could have prevented the Fitzgerald and McCain tragedies, and that he had urged the Navy to revamp the command and control setup in 2017.
“I was told, ‘It’s not going to happen; there’s one chain of command.’ That’s what they all kept saying to me, there’s one chain of command, and that’s the operational chain of command, which the [type commanders] are not in.”
Brown said that, with the operational chain of command in charge of the ships in maintenance, his job as the type commander was to ensure ships were up to date on their certifications — which Bonhomme Richard was. Still, he said the operational chain of command had made clear in the past the ship was always their ship, regardless of what phase of maintenance, training or operations it was in.
Had the Navy made Brown’s recommended change in 2017, Bonhomme Richard would have been clearly under Brown’s control in 2020 and he could have taken more aggressive measures when the fire broke out.
Brown said the Navy must learn from this disaster and make the proper reforms to prevent another ship from being destroyed — and the right lessons can’t be learned or the right reforms made if the Navy is working off an incomplete and inaccurate investigation.
Other Navy leaders agreed command and control was an issue the day of the fire, but disagreed that 3rd Fleet should have taken a bigger role.
Conn was appointed to lead the investigation — the Navy was clear at the time that he was given the assignment not in his capacity as 3rd Fleet commander but as an individual three-star admiral in the San Diego area with the experience to lead a command investigation.
Conn told Defense News in a media roundtable in October, when the fire investigation was released, that Navy policy was for ships in maintenance to go through the administrative chain of command, through the type commander. He added that “one of our recommendations going forward is to review where should the operational chain be aligned as part of the oversight in a lengthy availability.”
Rear Adm. Paul Spedero, who led the major fires review that accompanied the Bonhomme Richard fire investigation, added during the roundtable that there had been confusion and inconsistency in the past between administrative control and operational control of ships in maintenance. He said that issue had been largely solved as the Navy made reforms following the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions.
But, he agreed, the Bonhomme Richard fire response “certainly had issues. … There was a lack of clarity in [administrative control] and [operational control] responsibilities.”
Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy spokesman, added in his statement that “there were multiple contributing factors that caused confusion on the [command and control]. First, there was a failure to adequately train for a fire in an industrial environment, and more specifically, exercise the various supporting and supported command relationships. Second, some of the policies in place were in conflict or unnecessarily redundant with one another. Finally, practices and procedures had developed over time that were accepted and followed but were inconsistent with written policies, which allowed the [command and control] in the circumstances of the industrial environment to become varied.”
Brown said, despite the major role he played while the ship was on fire, he was never interviewed. Conn emailed him about a potential interview and to ask five specific questions related to the roles and functions of the type commander. Brown answered the questions, but said Conn never followed up to arrange a formal interview.
Brown said he had no indication he would be named as contributing to the loss of the ship until the report came out.
“I am convinced that there was undue command influence on that investigation at the end, because when you look at the findings of facts, in the findings of facts behind my name, they just don’t make any sense. And why won’t they talk to me?” he added.
Brown led the investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak on aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to the McCain investigation. “If you’re going to consider anybody for any type of disciplinary action, you need to, at the very least, interview them,” he said.
Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the spokesman, said retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown’s input via email was included in the investigation and “it is not uncommon for an investigation to use written questions to gather information.”
Overall, he added, “the investigation was thorough, is being reviewed by all echelons of the chain of command, and has been extremely valuable in helping to identify corrections across the fleet to help get at the challenges of shipboard fires.”
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Sam Paparo serves as the consolidated disposition authority for this incident and sent Brown a short letter in December stating that “I have determined your case warrants no action.”
Brown said he thought the issue was resolved until his lawyer in early June warned him Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro would be sending a letter of censure.
“I just don’t know what facts changed in the last six months,” he said.
Lauren Hanzel, a former Navy judge advocate general who currently works in private practice as a military defense attorney, told Defense News that Conn and his team not interviewing Brown in the first place was unusual, particularly when it started to look like Brown was turning into a subject of the investigation and might be named as accountable.
Sending a censure after the CDA cleared Brown, she said, is even more unusual.
The process Brown described “is about as unique as us losing a capital ship. It’s unconventional, and I’m a little bit disappointed because if you look at due process and the appearance of fairness,” the Navy will come out looking bad in this case, she said.
Hanzel noted censures are often a tool to block future promotions for someone in the military who can’t be successfully prosecuted for wrongdoing, but she said Brown’s retirement in 2020 makes the benefit of censure less clear and appear political.
Brown told Defense News the Navy postponed sending him the censure letter in early June as he recovered from a medical procedure but that he expects to receive it in July.
Asked what he hoped would happen by talking to the media, Brown said the Navy has a pattern of punishing three-stars for political expediency without examining root causes and making reforms.
Though he planned to let it go before, “now I don’t think I can, because I think the Navy is destined just to make the same mistakes again and again, especially the surface navy, because we don’t have the [command and control] right.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.