Former Bonhomme Richard captain, executive officer fined $5,000 each for fire, records show

They are two of the 22 sailors who received administrative action from the Navy after the blaze


By Andrew Dyer
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The former commanding and executive officers of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard were each fined $5,000 as punishment for failing to prepare the ship and its crew to fight the July 2020 fire that destroyed the vessel, records obtained by the Union-Tribune show.

The officers — Capt. Gregory Thoroman, the former ship's captain, and Capt. David Ray, the executive officer — were among the 22 sailors who received administrative action from the service after the fire, the Navy announced in July.

A July 2020 fire destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard.
A July 2020 fire destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. (File photo/Nelvin C. Cepeda/Tribune News Service)

The officers' non-judicial punishment records were released last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by the Union-Tribune. The service released documents for just six of the 27 sailors whose actions before and during the fire were reviewed by the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Samuel Paparo. The Union-Tribune filed an appeal Friday for the rest of the records.

The records of the six sailors released show all received written reprimands, with only Thoroman and Ray being fined. The nonjudicial punishment disposition records are heavily redacted, with details of specific charges removed and the names of three sailors withheld. The third named sailor is the ship's former command master chief, Jose Hernandez.

The cases of the six sailors were adjudicated in December — a full seven months before the Navy announced the results in July. Other sailors subject to the admiral's review received letters of instruction or caution. The review was focused on the ship's fire prevention, readiness and response to the fire, the Navy said.

The July 2020 fire burned for almost five days, destroying most of the ship above its waterline. The Navy scrapped the ship in 2021.

The Navy determined the fire was deliberately set and charged a junior sailor with arson. The sailor was acquitted of the charge at a military court-martial in September. He is still on active duty in San Diego, according to a 3rd Fleet spokesperson.

The Navy also sought to hold leaders in San Diego accountable.

The service's investigation found that numerous failures in training and material conditions on board made the 844-foot warship vulnerable to fire. Sailors lacked training and, even had they been capable of fighting the fire, fire stations on board were missing equipment and an automated foam system was inoperable when the fire began.

Its investigation identified three dozen other Navy officials and sailors bore some responsibility, from members of the crew to the civilian and high-ranking officials overseeing the ship's $250 million retrofit.

Thoroman was reprimanded for failing to "instruct and drill personnel" on duty section composition and safety precautions, his nonjudicial punishment report says. The fire began on a Sunday morning when the ship was manned with only its weekend duty section — roughly one-sixth of the crew.

His reprimand also included a charge of dereliction of duty since, as captain, he had "absolute responsibility" for the safety and well-being of the ship.

Three of the five specifications on Thoroman's nonjudicial punishment were redacted.

Ray was also reprimanded for dereliction of duty, his nonjudicial punishment report says. As executive officer, the Navy says he failed to ensure the crew understood and observed firefighting safety precautions on the ship while it was undergoing maintenance. He also didn't keep the command advised of its survivability readiness, the report says.

Two of the four specifications against Ray were redacted.

Hernandez, the command master chief and highest-ranking enlisted sailor on board, was also reprimanded for dereliction of duty because he failed to teach and enforce standards among the crew and "negligently failed" to advise Thoroman on the welfare and training of sailors on board, his report says.

The three other nonjudicial punishment records were for the ship's chief engineer, its damage control assistant and a chief damage controlman — all unnamed. The chief was reprimanded for failing to restore two firefighting foam stations on board as he was ordered to do one week before the blaze, according to his report. Those foam stations were not fully operational at the time of the fire and had been falsely signed-off as functional during maintenance checks three months before the fire, the Navy's investigation found.

The former damage control assistant, a commander, was reprimanded for entering the ship on the second day of the fire after Thoroman issued orders not to do so, the report says. He was also cited for dereliction of duty for failing to train the ship's in-port emergency team and to prevent the ship from receiving damage.

The ship's chief engineer failed to furnish backup power to the ship and failed to properly stow hazardous materials, his nonjudicial punishment report says. Seven of the chief engineer's nine specifications were redacted by the Navy.

Senior officers off-ship were also administratively punished, the service said in its July announcement. Letters of instruction were issued to Rear Adm. Scott Brown, the director of fleet maintenance for the Pacific Fleet, and Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Center.

Vice Adm. Richard Brown, who is now retired but was the commander of the Naval Surface Force at the time of the fire, received a letter of censure from Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.

The service revamped its in-port firefighting and prevention programs in the two years since the fire, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the San Diego-based commander of Naval Surface Forces, told reporters in August. Citing confusion during the fire's first hours, Kitchener said the Navy established a clarified chain-of-command during such incidents. Surface Force commanders — one on the West Coast and another on the East — will now be in charge on-the-ground during any major fire.

Changes to the fire prevention program for ships undergoing maintenance and more firefighting resources on the Navy's piers are also in the works, he said, and ships are conducting more firefighting training and fire drills.

"We fundamentally changed the way we look at in-port firefighting," Kitchener told reporters. "Constant vigilance is required."

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This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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