PORTLAND, Maine — A Portsmouth Naval Shipyard worker has pleaded guilty to setting a fire that caused $450 million in damage to a U.S. Navy submarine docked there, U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II announced Thursday.
Casey James Fury, 24, waived indictment Thursday morning before U.S. District Court Judge George Z. Singal in Portland and pleaded guilty to two counts of arson at the shipyard for fires set on May 23 and June 16, Delahanty announced.
The U.S. attorney told members of the media in a Thursday news conference that Fury agreed to a plea deal, and prosecutors will seek between 188 and 235 months of prison time in exchange for his guilty plea.
That works out to between about 15 and 20 years of prison time.
The recommended sentence on the two counts of arson is comparable to a maximum sentence of life in prison plus 25 years, as well as fines equal to the cost of repairing or replacing any property damage.
The May 23 blaze caused an estimated $450 million in damage to the USS Miami, a Los Angeles class nuclear attack sub that was undergoing an overhaul at the shipyard. The $450 million estimate is about $50 million more than the Navy initially calculated, Delahanty said.
“The initial estimate of damage, $400 million, was based only on a preliminary assessment,” Delahanty said. “According to Navy officials, as unrestricted access to the Miami was restored, further evaluations refined the damage assessment to $450 million, which includes estimates for unknown repairs and secondary impact to other submarine projects.”
Despite the increase in damage estimates, federal prosecutors used a range of between $200 million and $400 million in losses when they were determining a recommendation for a sentence, Delahanty said. He acknowledged Thursday the unlikelihood that Fury will ever be able to pay the Navy and other victims full restitution.
“There will be attempts to get what they can, but obviously, the number here is such that there isn’t much hope of completely — or even substantially — repaying it,” Delahanty said.
In addition to the cost to the U.S. Navy, Delahanty said Fury could be obligated to pay firefighters, shipyard workers and public safety officials who were put in danger by the fire. The U.S. attorney said five individuals were injured.
“There were physical and emotional injuries to five emergency responders who went into what had to be the equivalent of stepping into a blast furnace,” he said. “Obviously, the first fire was far more extensive than we probably [were prepared for]. But working on the ship and knowing how many people work there, I would think common sense would have indicated there was significant risk [of injuries].”
Fury was working as a painter and sandblaster at the facility at the times of the fires; he has been in custody since his arrest July 23.
In the case of the May 23 blaze, investigators say Fury set fire to some rags inside the vessel while working aboard the USS Miami because he was suffering from anxiety and wanted to leave work early to meet with his girlfriend.
For the June 16 fire, which was extinguished quickly, Fury wrapped alcohol wipes around what Delahanty described Thursday as “wood underneath the hull on a structure used to hold the ship up while in dry dock.”
After admitting to setting the fires in a pair of interviews on June 18 and 20, Fury reportedly gave investigators a tour of the similarly built USS Pasadena and demonstrated how he had set the fires. He subsequently led agents on a walk-through of the USS Miami for a similar demonstration, although the submarine at that point remained severely damaged.
Delahanty said Fury likely will be sentenced in early March, after Fury undergoes a presentencing evaluation.
“Should the judge exceed 235 months, then under the terms of the agreement, the defendant has an opportunity to withdraw his plea if he wants to,” Delahanty said, adding that prosecutors can back out as well if the judge imposes a sentence of less than 188 months.
The Navy has committed to repairing the USS Miami, and about a third of the initial preparation and planning work — for which the Department of Defense has thus far allocated $94 million — will be performed at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
“I applaud the combined local, state and federal response to the fire onboard the USS Miami, as well as the joint investigation that resulted from the incident. Because of the courage of firefighters from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and across New England, the Miami was saved from being completely engulfed in fire and it will sail again,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a statement Thursday. “During the investigation, it became clear that arson was involved, and the case against [Fury] was meticulously built in a team effort by Navy investigators, NCIS, other federal agencies, and the U.S. attorney.”