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The two top-ranking officers on the USS George Washington were relieved of duty Wednesday in San Diego in the aftermath of a fire that caused $70 million in damage and injured more than three dozen sailors, the Navy announced.

The removal of both the ship's commanding officer, Capt. David C. Dykhoff, and its executive officer, Capt. David M. Dober, was an "unusual" move for the Navy, according to a top spokesman with the Navy's command in the Pacific.

But the May 22 fire -- which the Navy says appears to have started by unauthorized cigarette smoking near improperly stored oil containers -- delayed the carrier's move to Japan and injured 37 sailors who fought the fire, including one who suffered first- and second-degree burns.

"Relieving both officers is unusual in the Navy," said Capt. Scott Gureck, spokesman for Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. "This was a pretty serious safety issue that we are going to correct."

Also on Wednesday, the Navy announced the George Washington will begin sailing toward its new home, Yokosuka Naval Base, on Aug. 21 and arrive in late September.

The George Washington originally was scheduled to replace the USS Kitty Hawk in August.

U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Robert F. Willard directed Naval Air Forces Pacific commander Vice Adm. Thomas J. Kilcline Jr. to remove Dykhoff and Dober, officials said.

Dykhoff was removed for a "loss of confidence in his ability to command and his failure to meet mission requirements and readiness standards," according to a Navy release. Dober was relieved "for substandard performance," the release said.

Both remain on active-duty status; their next assignments have not been decided, according to Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.

Capt. J.R. Haley, previously the deputy chief of staff to U.S. Pacific Command, took command of the George Washington. Capt. Karl O. Thomas, who was the executive officer of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Nimitz-class carrier, was named the George Washington's executive officer.

The officers' removal on Wednesday was a first step in the investigation's findings, Navy spokesmen said this week.

Now it's up to Rear Adm. Richard B. Wren, who heads Commander Task Force 70, to decide whether other sailors will face administrative or disciplinary punishment, according to Brown.

Wren oversees the carrier strike group for the Navy's Pacific-based 7th Fleet. Currently, the carrier in the group is the USS Kitty Hawk, the Navy's last conventionally powered carrier. The Kitty Hawk is scheduled for retirement, and the nuclear-powered George Washington will take its place.

But that replacement has been delayed for weeks because of the fire. The Kitty Hawk is scheduled to arrive in San Diego on Aug. 7. Two weeks later, after crews swap decks, the George Washington will begin sailing for Japan. When the investigation is fully completed, a partial report will be available for public view, according to Brown.

Previously, the Navy had said the damage was "primarily electric in nature." On Wednesday, the Navy released some of its initial findings that pointed the cause toward smoking sailors.

The fire began several decks down in the aft of the ship in an area that once held a conventionally fueled boiler, according to Gureck. It appears sailors were using the area to store 90 gallons of refrigerant compressor oil and as a smoking area, Gureck said.

Both actions are against policy, he said.

"We found cigarette butts where we shouldn't have found them," he said during a phone interview.

Smoking aboard ships is allowed exclusively in designated areas outside, usually on weather decks, he said.

The fire burned through an area seven stories tall like a giant blowtorch or chimney fire, Gureck said. It took about 12 hours to extinguish, according to the release.

"The fire and the subsequent magnitude of the fire were the result of a series of human acts that could have been prevented," the release said.


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