The massive July 12 fire which damaged the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego harbour was one of the Navy’s worst warship fires outside of combat in recent memory.
The amphibious assault ship was left with extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage and its future remains uncertain.
According to a senior defense official with knowledge of the investigation, arson is now suspected in the blaze, which took nearly a week to extinguish, and a US Navy sailor was being questioned as a potential suspect.
The official, with knowledge of the investigation, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public.
The sailor was being questioned as part of the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the official said, adding that defense department leaders were notified of the development.
The official said the sailor was not detained, AP reported.
The development in the investigation was first reported by KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego. The Navy declined to answer questions.
“The Navy will not comment on an ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the investigative process and all those involved,” said Lieutenant Tim Pietrack, a Navy spokesman. “We have nothing to announce at this time.”
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service also declined to comment on the case, AP reported.
The amphibious assault ships are among the few in the US fleet that can act as a mini aircraft carrier. If the Bonhomme Richard is not repaired, it could cost the Navy up to US$4 billion to replace it, according to defense analysts.
The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost US$250 million, AP reported.
More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, a top Navy official said the service lacks the shipbuilding and repair capacity to meet the demands of peacetime, much less war — placing the future of the Bonhomme Richard in serious doubt.
“We don’t have enough capacity in peacetime, we can’t get ships delivered on time with the predictability we need today,” said Rear Admiral Eric Ver Hage, the Navy Regional Maintenance Center commander and director of surface ship maintenance and modernization in a report from Military.com.
“Think how long it took the Fitzgerald and [John S.] McCain to get back in operation,” Ver Hage said, citing as examples the lengthy repairs of the two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers involved in deadly collisions two months apart in 2017.
The Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan on June 17, 2017, killing seven sailors who were trapped below decks in flooded compartments. The destroyer went back to sea on Feb. 3 of this year.
The McCain collided with a tanker off Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017, killing 10 sailors, and was declared operational in June.
Ver Hage also cited the catastrophic USS Bonhomme Richard fire to illustrate the difficulties the Navy has in quick turnarounds on repairs. The Navy has yet to decide whether to scrap or repair the ship, Military.com reported.
“We’ll see what we’ll do with the Bonhomme Richard, but that will be a massive effort to repair her,” Ver Hage said. “I’m talking years, most likely.”
About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the flames sent up a huge plume of dark smoke from the 840-foot (256-meter) vessel, which had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing the upgrade, AP reported.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday visited the ship a day 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.
But winds coming off the San Diego Bay whipped up the flames and the fire spread up the elevator shafts and the exhaust stacks, AP reported.
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.