USS Bonhomme Richard

Sailor Denies Starting Fire That Destroyed USS Bonhomme Richard: Lawyer

Evidence collected during the Navy's investigation is enough to direct a "preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system," according to the Navy

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An attorney speaking on behalf of the Navy sailor accused of starting the fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard last year said the sailor denies the allegations made against him.

Charges were brought forth against the sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation, a Navy spokesman said Thursday.

The fire was one of the worst to rip through a U.S. warship outside of combat in recent years, according to Navy officials.

Gary S. Barthel of the Military Law Center, who is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, told NBC 7 on Friday that his office had yet to receive the discovery evidence in the case against his client, which Barthel said is normal in such cases.

Barthel said that defense typically does not get discovery evidence until after charges have been preferred. He did say that he anticipated receiving that evidence in the near future. Once the sailor's legal team has an opportunity to review the case against him, Barthel added, a preliminary hearing -- which has not yet been scheduled, according to the Navy -- will be held, during which a preliminary-hearing officer will examine evidence from both sides and determine whether there is probable cause to pursue the case. If he determines there is not sufficient evidence, the case would be dismissed. If that officer were to determine there was, in fact, probable cause, then the case could then be referred to a court-martial..

So far, little is known about the suspect in the case, other than the fact that he is a Seaman Apprentice Sailor E2. A request to Barthel for additional information about him was declined.

U.S. Third Fleet Public Affairs Officer Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson said there was enough evidence to direct a "preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system."

The sailor was a member of the Bonhomme Richard's crew at the time and "is accused of starting the fire," Robertson said in a news release sent out on Thursday afternoon.

https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/crews-battle-3-alarm-blaze-on-military-assault-ship/2363877/

The sailor's preliminary hearing will likely not take place for another week at least, the spokesman said.

The fire began 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. The four-day inferno fought by hundreds of firefighters, including multiple water-dropping helicopters.

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

About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time of the fire and the entire crew was able to disembark; each sailor was later accounted for

The fire sent acrid smoke billowing over San Diego, and officials recommended people avoid exercising outdoors.

About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time the fire was sparked and the were able to disembark. At least 57 people — 34 sailors and 23 civilians — were hospitalized with minor injuries, Naval Surface Forces said last year.

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

Amphibious assault ships are among the few in the U.S. fleet that can act as a mini aircraft carrier.

The Bonhomme Richard had been nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost $250 million when the fire broke out on July 12, 2020. The 840-foot vessel had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing the upgrade.

In April, the ship was decommissioned in a private ceremony at Naval Base San Diego.

The USS Bonhomme Richard was decommissioned after a fire tore through the ship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report -- Ed.

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