Hundreds of Navy sailors continued Monday to fight a raging fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard at a San Diego naval base, one of the worst fires that has ever engulfed a US warship out of combat.
The fire, which started on Sunday morning, destroyed the ship’s front mast and created what Navy officers described as hell below its superstructure, reaching temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees.
The 59 people who were injured, 36 sailors and 23 civilians, were released from various area hospitals on Monday afternoon, a Navy spokeswoman said. They had been treated for injuries including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Now, the focus has been on the ship’s fate and the impact rippling smoke can have on communities near the naval base.
The devastating fire and its rapid spread throughout the ship is a threat against which warships protect themselves jealously. All Navy recruits receive some degree of fire training, and are taught that a fire is a greater threat than even enemy torpedoes or missiles.
Because of that constant concern, ships like the Bonhomme Richard often have about a fifth or a sixth of their crew on board, even in their home port, enough to get going in an emergency or to deploy teams of firefighters if necessary.
On Monday, tugs dumped water into an open bay in the Bonhomme Richard hangar as helicopters dumped huge buckets onto the flight deck. Sailors on board were forced to “drain” the ship at the same time to stabilize Bonhomme Richard, which is located next to the water used in firefighting, Rear Admiral Philip E. Sobeck said in a briefing.
Admiral Sobeck, commander of the Navy expeditionary strike group whose flagship is the Bonhomme Richard, said there was burn damage to the entire skin of the ship. He did not directly answer a question about whether the helmet had been damaged.
When asked if the ship could be saved, Admiral Sobeck said: “Right now, we are doing everything we can to do exactly that. Once we put out the fire, which is the priority, then we do that assessment. “He later added that he was” absolutely hopeful “that the ship would sail again.
At first glance, the Bonhomme Richard closely resembles a smaller version of a Navy aircraft carrier: it has an 800-foot long flight deck from bow to stern that carries helicopters and F-35 aircraft. But its main mission is as a massive amphibious assault ship, capable of transporting about 1,200 Marines and landing them on a beach with amphibious vehicles, while its aircraft provides close air support.
Commissioned in 1998, the Bonhomme Richard, named after Benjamin Franklin using his pseudonym, is one of eight ships in its class, and was nearing the end of a long period of shipyard repairs after a six-year deployment with the Seventh. Navy fleet in Sasebo, Japan.
The exact cause of the fire was unclear. But Admiral Sobeck said the sailors on board said it had started in an open cavernous area used to store trucks and amphibious vehicles used by the Marines and that it could have been fed by heavy-duty cardboard boxes and other stored materials.
Admiral Sobeck said one of the ship’s firefighting methods, its halon system, was not working because work was being done at the shipyard. But since halon is generally installed only in certain discrete compartments, such as in engine rooms, it was unclear if that had an impact on firefighting.
A plume of smoke from the Bonhomme Richard swept south with the prevailing winds, propelling a plume that carried pieces of paint, asphalt, plastic, and ash through Imperial Beach, California, and into Mexico. In the opposite direction, residents also reported smelling smoke from the fire as far as Del Mar, 25 miles north.
The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District warned Monday that thick, puffy smoke from the ship could pose health risks due to increased levels of fine particles.
“In high-smoke areas, assume that air quality levels are not healthy for sensitive groups and are not healthy for everyone,” the district warned.
The fact that the fire broke out on a Sunday, when the majority of the crew was off the ship, underscores the particular and persistent threat that fire poses to warships, where even in port, industrial work and maintenance can continue at all hours. the day, even on weekends.
Ships like the Bonhomme Richard are often rotated through tours in Japan, where the pace of operations is the highest in the Navy, leading to heavy wear and tear that is generally addressed with long periods in a dry dock at his return to the United States. Before the fire, Bonhomme Richard was completing an extended shipyard period before its next deployment. Now the ship faces an uncertain future.
The Navy cannot even begin to know the scope of work ahead until the last fire is extinguished and all the red-hot steel has cooled. Firefighters with air tanks have returned to the interior of the ship after the Bonhomme Richard was fully evacuated on Sunday afternoon.
However, even in catastrophic damage cases, the Navy has a long history of bringing ships back to life.
In 1987 the USS Stark was saved after being hit by two Iraqi missiles and returned to service. The following year, the USS Samuel B. Roberts frigate survived after attacking a naval mine in the Persian Gulf.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the cruiser USS Princeton and the amphibious ship USS Tripoli attacked naval mines; Later they returned to duty.
And in 2000, the USS Cole stayed afloat after being attacked by an explosive-filled suicide boat that broke a 30-foot-wide hole in its hull. It was placed on a heavy ship that transported it back to the United States for repair before putting it back into service.
Similar elevators were used to transport two other destroyers in recent years after collisions at sea. One of them, the USS Fitzgerald, was docked just across the Bonhomme Richard Pier and was finally towed away by tugs after being overwhelmed by smoke rising from the largest ship.