Sailors struggle to remember year after Navy warship fire

Sep 18, 2022, 9:13 PM | Updated: Sep 20, 2022, 3:48 am

SAN DIEGO (AP) — More than a half dozen former crewmembers of the USS Bonhomme Richard gave testimony on the first day of the arson trial of a young sailor Monday, describing a harrowing, chaotic scene as they confronted an inferno on the Navy warship with shoddy equipment.

With the thick black smoke quickly enveloping the ship, many said it was difficult to know what was going on. Now more than a year later, several of them who testified at the court martial of 21-year-old Ryan Sawyer Mays said that they are struggling to recall details from that July 12, 2020 morning, posing a challenge to the prosecution.

The prosecution has presented no physical evidence proving the 21-year-old sailor set the USS Bonhomme Richard on fire, something the defense has highlighted. Key witnesses also have changed their stories or their testimonies have contradicted each other, including on Monday.

According to prosecutors, Mays was an arrogant sailor angry about being assigned to deck duty after failing to become a Navy SEAL — and he made the Navy pay in a big way.

“Your honor, it was a mischievous act of defiance gone wrong,” Cmdr. Leah O’Brien told the judge during opening statements for the prosecution at Naval Base San Diego.

Mays’ military defense counsel, Lt. Tayler Haggerty, countered in her opening remarks that it’s the Navy who is wrong. Haggerty said investigators concluded Mays did it before the probe was complete and then ignored evidence and witness accounts that didn’t fit into that narrative so they could find a scapegoat for the loss of a billion-dollar ship that was mismanaged by senior officers.

Once investigators pinned the blame on Mays, who was known for being sarcastic and flippant, “nothing else mattered,” Haggerty said.

“Just because the government eliminates, ignores pieces of evidence, it doesn’t mean the court should,” she told the court. Haggerty told the judge by the end of the trial, which is supposed to last two weeks, “you will exonerate this sailor and find him not guilty of both charges.”

Mays is charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. He has denied any wrongdoing. He waived his right to a jury and has put his fate in the hands of the Navy judge, Capt. Derek Butler.

The July 2020 blaze burned for nearly five days and sent an acrid smoke over San Diego, damaging the amphibious assault ship so badly that it had to be scuttled. It marked one of the worst noncombat warship disasters in recent memory.

About 115 sailors were on board, and nearly 60 were treated for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries.

The Navy warship’s former fire marshal became emotional Monday when asked by the prosecution to recall what he did that day. He took a moment before responding.

“I’m still trying to work through this in therapy myself,” Petty Officer Jeffrey Garvin told the court at Naval Base San Diego. “I apologize.”

Later, he repeated, “I can’t remember a lot.”

Defense lawyers say investigators brushed aside the fact that lithium batteries were stored next to highly combustible material such as cardboard boxes, in violation of ship protocol.

The prosecution said one sailor told investigators he saw Mays go down to the ship’s lower vehicle storage area before the fire broke out there, while another sailor who escorted Mays to the brig said she overheard Mays say he did it. The defense said he was being sarcasstic after denying any wrongdoing during over 10 hours of questioning by investigators.

The defense said investigators, meanwhile, dismissed details that pointed to another sailor, who was later fired from the Navy.

Several former crewmembers testified Monday that the lower vehicle storage area was filled with bottles, tools, generators, tractors and other equipment while the ship was undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade pier-side in San Diego.

Navy leaders disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors in connection with what it described as widespread leadership failures that contributed to the disaster. The Navy spread blame across a wide range of ranks and responsibilities and directly faulted the ship’s three top officers.

While investigators said Mays set the fire, a Navy report last year concluded that the inferno was preventable and unacceptable, and that there were lapses in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and overall command and control.

The failure to extinguish or contain the fire led to temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that flowed into other parts of the ship.

Retired Navy Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, an adjunct professor at Admiralty and International Maritime Law Fordham Law School, said the prosecution has its work cut out for it.

“There are questions about identification of the people in the vicinity of the fire and possible causes other than arson,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Moreover, the conflagration and firefighting efforts damaged, if not destroyed, the crime scene and crucial evidence.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Lead water pipes pulled from underneath the street are seen in Newark, N.J., Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Pho...

Associated Press

Biden to require cities to replace harmful lead pipes within 10 years

The Biden administration has previously said it wants all of the nation's roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly.

2 days ago

Facebook's Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2...

Associated Press

Meta shuts down thousands of fake Facebook accounts that were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Meta said it removed 4789 Facebook accounts in China that targeted the United States before next year’s election.

2 days ago

A demonstrator in Tel Aviv holds a sign calling for a cease-fire in the Hamas-Israel war on Nov. 21...

Associated Press

Hamas releases a third group of hostages as part of truce, and says it will seek to extend the deal

The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the first American was released under a four-day truce.

7 days ago

Men look over the site of a deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 18, ...

Associated Press

New AP analysis of last month’s deadly Gaza hospital explosion rules out widely cited video

The Associated Press is publishing an updated visual analysis of the deadly Oct. 17 explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli Hospital.

10 days ago

Peggy Simpson holds a photograph of law enforcement carrying Lee Harvey Oswald's gun through a hall...

Associated Press

JFK assassination remembered 60 years later by surviving witnesses to history, including AP reporter

Peggy Simpson is among the last surviving witnesses who are sharing their stories as the nation marks the 60th anniversary.

10 days ago

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, ...

Associated Press

Israeli Cabinet approves cease-fire with Hamas; deal includes release of 50 hostages

Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a cease-fire deal with the Hamas militant group that would bring a temporary halt to a devastating war.

11 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.


Dierdre Woodruff

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University: innovating Arizona health care education

Midwestern University’s Glendale Campus near Loop 101 and 59th Avenue is an established leader in health care education and one of Arizona’s largest and most valuable health care resources.

Sailors struggle to remember year after Navy warship fire