A command investigation found the crew of the dock landing ship Whidbey Island responding to a early-morning blaze last year showed a lack of preparedness and disorganization. (MC1 Rachael L. Leslie / Navy)
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The response to an early-morning blaze aboard the dock landing ship Whidbey Island last October was a clinic in unpreparedness and lack of organization, according to a command investigation.
Initial response to the 3:40 a.m. report of white smoke in the fo'c'sle of the ship, moored at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., for a pierside maintenance availability, was sluggish; the officer of the deck's casualty announcement didn't go out until 4:06, and the officer didn't provide the fire's location.
Ventilation wasn't secured, and smoke and fire boundaries weren't established, allowing the fire to grow. A self-contained breathing apparatus change-out area wasn't established. The heat-sensing device in the deck office was either inoperable, ignored or turned off.
Officials never determined what started the Oct. 5 fire, which began in the deck office, spread fore and aft along the first deck passageway and vertically to engineering's repair division fan room, causing $9.2 million in damage, according to Naval Surface Force Atlantic. The report blamed several officers and crew members; "administrative action" has been taken, but a spokesman declined to say what that action involved.
The investigation noted some positives — no one was injured, and once notified, the rapid response team and in-port emergency team's hose team "reacted quickly and professionally" in fighting the fire along with Navy regional firefighters who responded.
Three unidentified sailors — all names were redacted from the copy of the command investigation obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — were recommended for Navy Commendation Medals "for their superior performance while fighting a Class A fire."
‘Unsats' all around
The positives were far outweighed by negative issues discovered by the investigating officer that indicated an uneven shipboard focus on damage control.
"Ship's force's knowledge and use of installed sound powered phones was unsatisfactory," the officer wrote. Damage control central alarms were in unsatisfactory condition "and should have been obvious" to the commanding officer, executive officer, chief engineer/damage control officer, operations officer, damage control assistant "and any other khaki walking into DC central," the investigator wrote. "The damage control watch supervisor didn't know how to monitor the fire main in one area or how to secure ventilation in any area of the ship."
The problems didn't happen overnight, the investigator concluded: "There was an apparent lack of effort to improve on deficiencies noted during fire-fighting training. … Watchbill management is ineffective."
The investigator also questioned the forthrightness of some in the crew. "The claim by ship's force that all of the deficiencies ‘just happened' is not supported by photographs" taken before the fire or the investigator's assessment," the officer wrote.
Shipboard leaders were responsible, the investigating officer concluded, recommending nonjudicial punishment for the now- former CO, Cmdr. Kirk Weatherly, then-XO and now CO Cmdr. Eric Conzen, as well as the unidentified operations officer at the time of the fire. The investigating officer said all three should be punished for dereliction of duty. A Navy news release from last October said Weatherly's next assignment would be as reactor officer aboard the carrier Enterprise.
Rear Adm. Dave Thomas, commander of SURFLANT, disagreed. "I will take appropriate administrative action," he wrote. He also indicated he would take action on a recommendation that the then-prospective and now XO, Lt. Cmdr. Vernon Stanfield, receive a letter of instruction "for failing to meet the leadership standards demanded and expected of a surface warfare officer."
Stanfield lived in a stateroom with a broken 1MC but had made no effort to have it repaired, forcing the chief engineer to personally "fetch" Stanfield from his room after the fire had broken out, the investigator wrote.
SURFLANT declined to detail the actions Thomas took, with spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Bill Urban citing federal privacy laws and Navy policy.
Other letters of instruction, which are nonpunitive notifications of subpar performance and not placed in a service member's permanent file, were recommended for the ship's first lieutenant, damage control officer, ship's bos'n, 1st Division's leading chief petty officer, damage control assistant and the officer of the deck during the fire. The investigator also recommended that the damage control watch supervisor and engineering duty officer be forced to requalify for their jobs.
Urban similarly declined to detail the actions taken.
The investigating officer also recommended that the chief engineer be relieved as the senior watch officer, opining that the engineer's demanding administrative tasks "simply do not afford him the time required to effectively oversee in-port duty sections." Urban said the engineer transferred from the ship before the report was completed, and senior watch officer duties had been assigned to a more senior department head.
Curiously, one crew member was recommended for a letter of caution for mishandling hazardous material but also a commendation letter "for his superior performance as a nozzleman." The crew member was credited with getting the fire under control.
Investigators searching for the cause of the blaze zeroed in on a substance with a storied history in the Navy: linseed oil. Investigators found a partially filled container of linseed oil topped with rags that had been stored under the 2nd Division LCPO's desk early the previous evening.
Linseed oil, used in 19th-century ship construction and later to conserve teak ship decks, can spontaneously combust and is no longer authorized for use on Navy ships.
Navy Research Laboratory Chesapeake Beach conducted a test, replicating the conditions in the ship's deck office at the time. "Significant heat" was generated in the rags and on the can, but no flames were produced. The presence of the oil, and other flammables under the desk such as spray paint cans, were considered equally probable causes. Ultimately, the cause couldn't be determined "with certainty," the investigator wrote.
The investigation didn't include an explanation for the presence of the oil, which had been bought by the first lieutenant to "better support presentation" — presumably, to spruce up the wooden fixtures and ceremonial pieces onboard.
Thomas issued a SURFLANT-wide message July 15 detailing proper storage of hazardous materials and reiterated the prohibition on linseed oil for shipboard use, Urban said.
Whidbey Island's damage control problems — "every discrepancy specifically listed in the investigation," Urban said — were corrected during its four-month availability. In January, Amphibious Squadron 6 and Expeditionary Strike Group 2 conducted a "rigorous, post-availability safe to operate verification" and comprehensively evaluated damage control material readiness, he said. A 10-day sea trials period followed in February that tested "every system listed as a contributing factor to the fire as well as those damaged in the fire."
Whidbey Island is now rated as "fully operational." The ship deployed in March to the 5th and 6th fleet areas with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group.