Military and civilian emergency crews spent a third day battling a raging blaze aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Tuesday, laboring to control a perilous crisis that injured scores of firefighters and ravaged the 41,000-ton warship.
Despite the destructiveness of the out-of-control fire, Navy officials reported late Tuesday morning that the 22-year-old vessel appeared to have escaped irreparable harm, though all-out efforts to quell the flames and smoldering hot spots were ongoing.
“First, we have investigated the four main engineering spaces (of the ship) and found no major damage,” Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told reporters during a briefing at the naval base south of downtown San Diego. “There is no threat to the fuel tanks, which (are) well below any active fires or heat sources. The ship is stable, and (its) structure is safe.”
As of late afternoon, flight personnel had conducted more than 1,200 helicopter water drops on the ship, a process that was “cooling the superstructure and flight deck, enabling fire crews to get onboard internally to fight the fire,” and tugboats equipped with water cannons were “providing firefighting support from the waterline,” Sobeck said.
The blaze broke out shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday in a part of the vessel where cardboard and drywall supplies are kept, and soon was sending thick columns of acrid smoke above the bay.
Because the vessel was undergoing maintenance work when the fire erupted, its built-in flame-suppression system was inoperative, according to base officials.
After about 90 minutes, authorities decided to remove all firefighters from the vessel for safety reasons and battle the blaze by remote means, including helicopters and boats surrounding it on the bay.
The conflagration sent below-deck temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees and eventually left the ship listing due to the amount of fire- suppressing water it had taken on, Navy officials said.
About two hours after the fire began, a blast of unknown origin shook the vessel.
No San Diego Fire-Rescue Department firefighters “were on board the ship when the explosion happened, but the blast threw several firefighters off their feet,” the city department reported.
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 Monday, though he expressed confidence that firefighters could keep the blaze away from that storage area.
A total of 61 crew members — 38 sailors and 23 civilian firefighters — battling the blaze have suffered various minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, according to Navy officials.
Some 160 sailors and officers were 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 fire, according to Mike Raney, deputy public affairs officer with the Naval Surface Force.
What sparked the blaze remains unknown.
“Going forward, the Navy will do a thorough investigation of the incident, to assess the cause of the fire (and) damage to the ship,” said Sobeck, commander of USN Expeditionary Strike Group Three. “But right now … my focus and our focus remain putting the fire out and keeping our ship base safe.”
Among the precautions in the area of the blaze instituted by the U.S. Coast Guard were a one-nautical-mile safety zone on the waters surrounding the ship and up to 3,000 feet in the air above it.
USCG personnel also were assessing “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 the federal maritime agency.
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 could sail again.
“I cannot tell you how extremely proud I am of the work that our sailors have shown — the toughness, the resiliency and the teamwork with their fellow firefighters (from outside fire) departments,” Sobeck said.
On Sunday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer pledged that city officials were “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 Monday. “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 naval commander echoed that advice.
“As we continue to fight the fire, we remain cognizant of environmental concerns regarding the water and air quality,” Sobeck said. “We recommend residents follow county advisories for safety out of an abundance of caution.”
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 5:08 p.m. July 14, 2020
— City News Service
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