SAN DIEGO– More than half a dozen former crew members of the USS Bonhomme Richard testified on the first day of a young sailor’s arson trial on Monday, describing a heartbreaking and chaotic scene as they faced an inferno on the Navy warship with shoddy equipment.
With thick black smoke quickly enveloping the ship, many said it was hard to tell 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 have said they struggled to remember details of that morning of July 12, 2020 , posing a challenge to the prosecution.
The prosecution has presented no physical evidence proving the 21-year-old sailor set fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard, which the defense pointed out. Key witnesses also changed their accounts or their testimonies contradicted each other, including on Monday.
Prosecutors say Mays was an arrogant sailor angry at being assigned to deck duty after failing to become a Navy SEAL — and he made the Navy pay big.
“Your Honor, this was a malicious act of defiance gone wrong,” said Cmdr. Leah O’Brien told the judge during the prosecution’s opening statements at Naval Base San Diego.
Mays’ military defense attorney, Lt. Tayler Haggerty, countered in his opening remarks that the Navy is wrong. Haggerty said investigators concluded Mays did it before the end of the investigation, then ignored evidence and testimony that didn’t match that account so they could find a scapegoat for the loss. a billion dollar ship mismanaged by senior officers.
Once investigators blamed Mays, who was known to be sarcastic and flippant, “nothing else mattered,” Haggerty said.
“Just because the government is eliminating, ignoring evidence doesn’t mean the court should,” she told the court. Haggerty told the judge at the end of the trial, which is supposed to last two weeks, “you are going to exonerate this sailor and find him not guilty on both counts.”
Mays is charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a ship. He denied any wrongdoing. He waived his right to a jury and put his fate in the hands of Navy Judge Captain Derek Butler.
The July 2020 fire burned for nearly five days and sent acrid smoke over San Diego, damaging the amphibious assault ship so badly that it had to be scuttled. This marked one of the worst non-combatant 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 former Navy warship fire marshal became emotional on Monday when the prosecution asked him to remember what he did that day. He took a moment before answering.
“I always try to work through this myself in therapy,” Petty Officer Jeffrey Garvin told the Naval Base San Diego court. “I apologize.”
Later, he repeated, “I don’t remember much.
Defense attorneys say investigators ruled out that the lithium batteries were stored next to highly combustible materials such as cardboard boxes, in violation of ship protocol.
The prosecution said a sailor told investigators he saw Mays descend into the vessel’s lower vehicle storage area before the fire broke out there, while another sailor who escorted Mays to the brig said he heard Mays say he did. The defense said he was being sarcastic after denying any wrongdoing during more than 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 crew members testified on Monday that the lower vehicle storage area was filled with cylinders, tools, generators, tractors and other equipment as the ship underwent a $250 million upgrade over two years in San Diego.
Navy chiefs disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors in what they described as widespread leadership failures that contributed to the disaster. The Navy spread blame across a wide range of ranks and responsibilities and directly blamed the ship’s three senior officers.
While investigators say Mays set the fire, a Navy report last year concluded the hell was preventable and unacceptable, and there were gaps in training, coordination, communications , fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and general command and control.
The inability 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 sank in other parts of the ship.
Retired Navy Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, an adjunct professor at the Fordham Law School of Admiralty and International Maritime Law, said the prosecution had their work cut out for them.
“There are questions about identifying people in the vicinity of the fire and possible causes other than arson,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. and crucial evidence.”