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Defense official: Arson suspected as cause of Navy ship fire

Julie Watson and Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press

San Diego – Arson is suspected as the cause of a July 12 fire that left extensive damage to the USS Bonhomme Richard and a U.S. Navy sailor is being questioned as a potential suspect, a senior defense official said Wednesday.

The sailor was being questioned but was not detained and defense department leaders were notified of the development, the official said. The official, with knowledge of the investigation, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public.

FILE - In this July 12, 2020, file photo, smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, after an explosion and fire on board the ship at Naval Base San Diego.

The amphibious assault ship burned for more than four days and was the Navy’s worst U.S. warship fire outside of combat in recent memory.

The ship was left with extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage and its future remains uncertain.

The amphibious assault ships are among the few in the U.S. fleet that can act as a mini aircraft carrier. If the Bonhomme Richard is not repaired, it could cost the Navy up to $4 billion to replace it, according to defense analysts.

The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost $250 million.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday visited the ship after the blaze was extinguished. He said then that the Navy thought it had the fire under control only hours after it broke out the morning of July 12 in the ship’s lower storage area, where cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies were stored. But winds coming off the San Diego Bay whipped up the flames and the fire spread up the elevator shafts and the exhaust stacks.

Then two explosions – one heard as far as 13 miles (21 kilometres) away – caused it to grow even bigger, Gilday said. The Navy was looking into what caused the explosions, though Gilday said at that time that they had not found any indications yet of foul play.

More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

Baldor reported from Washington.