Harbor Police fireboats spray the burning USS Bonhomme Richard while a Navy helicopter drops water. Navy photo

Firefighters spent a second day battling a raging fire Monday aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, laboring to contain a super-hot, explosive blaze that has injured scores of sailors and civilians and caused extensive damage to the warship.

Naval forces were “doing everything they can” to save the ship more than 24 hours after the conflagration erupted on its lower decks, sending temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees in parts of the vessel and leaving it listing in the water, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told reporters during a late- morning briefing.

Adding to the dangers posed by the inferno, the flames were burning several decks away from a section in the ship where a million gallons of oil is housed, Sobeck acknowledged, though he expressed confidence that firefighters could keep the blaze away from that storage area.

Sailors from the USS Decatur assist in firefighting efforts. Navy photo

The fire began shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday in a part of the vessel where cardboard and drywall supplies are kept, according to the Navy and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. After about 90 minutes, authorities decided to remove all firefighters from the vessel for safety reasons and battle the blaze by remote means, including water dropped from helicopters and sprayed onto the ship via firefighting boats surrounding it on the bay.

About two hours after the fire began, a blast of unknown origin shook the vessel.

“None of the (SDFRD) firefighters were on board the ship when the explosion happened, but the blast threw several firefighters off their feet,” the city department reported.

A total of 59 crew members — three dozen sailors and 23 civilians — battling the blaze have suffered various minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, according to Navy officials. Five were hospitalized in stable condition, though all of those patients had been released as of late Monday afternoon.

There were 160 sailors and officers aboard the ship when the fire broke out, said Navy spokesman Brian O’Rourke.

About four hours after the ship began burning, the Navy moved the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell to berths farther away from the scene of the fiery crisis, according to Mike Raney, deputy public affairs officer with the Naval Surface Force.

The cause of the blaze remains unknown, Sobeck said. Because the vessel was undergoing maintenance work when the fire broke out, its built-in flame-suppression system was inoperative, he told reporters.

Two flight crews from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Three were helping other military crews and civilian firefighters battle the blaze, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“We are grateful for the quick and immediate response of local, base and shipboard firefighters aboard (the ship),” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said Sunday in a prepared statement, describing the event as “a terrible tragedy.”

Among the precautions in the area of the blaze were a one-nautical- mile safety zone on the waters around the ship and in the air, to 3,000 feet above that area, both instituted by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The federal maritime agency also was “assess(ing) environmental sensitivities and has contracted an oil-spill response organization to preemptively deploy protective boom to guard against any potential environmental concerns,” according to a statement from USCG public affairs.

Users of neighboring marinas were being advised to “utilize protective safety measures” as well, according to the agency.

Despite the severity of the fire, Sobeck told news crews he was “absolutely hopeful” that the personnel were doing everything possible to make sure the Bonhomme Richard can sail again.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer pledged that city officials are “here for the sailors and civilians affected by the ship fire at Naval Base San Diego.”

“All of the crew is off the USS Bonhomme Richard and accounted for,” Faulconer noted. “Thank you to our brave sailors and rescue crews.”

Officials in National City asked residents to remain in their homes as much as possible to avoid health hazards from the smoke billowing off the burning ship. Likewise, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District Office noted that if residents can smell acrid smoke, they should limit physical activity and stay indoors if possible.

“Right now, we’re not seeing anything rise to a level of health concerns for the public,” county Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said. “However, where smoke is present, San Diegans should limit physical activity and stay indoors, if possible, to limit exposure to particulate matter. The situation could change, as the fire is expected to be burning for a few days.”

The National Weather Service reported that the area of smoke concentrations would shift throughout the day as the onshore winds kick in and that the smoke should lift as the temperatures rise.

The Bonhomme Richard is the third warship in U.S. naval history to bear the name, which means “Good Man Richard” in French and honors Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The vessel has been homeported at Naval Base San Diego since the spring of 2018, when it returned from a six-year port switch to Sasebo, Japan, while becoming the command ship for Navy Expeditionary Strike Group Seven.

Updated at 5:38 p.m. July 13, 2020

— City News Service

Show comments

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.