A helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 combats a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. Photo: US Navy / Lieutenant Joseph Pfaff

The USS Bonhomme Richard burned for more than four days in San Diego harbor and was the Navy’s worst US warship fire outside of combat in recent memory.

The amphibious assault ship was left with extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage and was later scrapped, costing the Navy billions of dollars.

More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, such as smoke inhalation.

Following US Navy investigations into the blaze — which have not been made public — a crew member has now been charged with starting the blaze under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Ryan Sawyer Mays, a 20-year-old from Kentucky, carried a metal bucket into the vessel’s lower storage area, according to new court documents identifying him as the person accused of destroying the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, the Washington Post reported.

Mays is not only accused of intentionally setting the blaze, but also of tampering with fire-safety equipment on the ship and crime-scene evidence in an attempt to hinder the federal investigation, according to documents filed in the Southern California US District Court and unsealed this week.

The charges “were brought forth against a Navy Sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire” that began July 12, 2020, while the amphibious assault ship was docked in San Diego, according to a statement by Commander Sean Robertson, a spokesman for the Navy’s 3rd Fleet.

“Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system,” Robertson said.

Vice Admiral Steve Koehler, the commander of 3rd Fleet, has ordered a preliminary hearing headed by an impartial hearing officer who will make determinations and recommendations, including “whether or not there is probable cause to believe an offense has been committed,” he said.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Zachary Saltzman, assigned to the the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, takes off firefighting gear at Naval Base San Diego. Photo: US Navy / Mass Communication Specialist Jasen Moreno-Garcia

The Bonhomme Richard was undergoing a $250 million, two-year upgrade at Naval Base San Diego when the blaze seared through 11 of the ship’s 14 decks, destroyed its forward mast and damaged the superstructure before being put out four days later.

The fire started 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 flames spread up the elevator shafts and exhaust stacks.

Then two explosions — one heard as far as 13 miles (21 kilometers) away — caused it to grow even bigger.

Firefighters attacked the flames inside the ship, while firefighting vessels with water cannons directed streams of seawater into the ship and helicopters made hundreds of water drops.

Mays, a seaman apprentice, joined the Navy in May 2019. He attempted SEAL training later that year but dropped out after five days, according to court documents. Mays was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard in March 2020 and was responsible for routine maintenance as part of the ship’s deck department.

The sailor was aboard the ship on July 12, 2020, when the fire broke out but repeatedly denied involvement when speaking to investigators, claiming it was all a “setup,” the documents state.

The Navy announced in December that the ship, only 22 years in service, would have to be scrapped.

Officials said that restoring the ship would cost US$2.5 billion to US$3.2 billion and take five to seven years, saying that some 60% of the vessel would need to be replaced.

“Following an extensive material assessment in which various courses of action were considered and evaluated, we came to the conclusion that it is not fiscally responsible to restore her,” then-Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite said last year.

Sources: Stars & Stripes, Military.com, CNN, Forbes Magazine, Washington Post