Hundreds of Navy sailors were continuing on Monday to battle a raging fire on the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard at the San Diego naval base, one of the worst blazes to ever engulf an American warship outside of combat.
The fire, which began Sunday morning, has destroyed the ship’s forward mast and created what Navy officials described as an inferno beneath its superstructure, reaching temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees.
All 59 people who were injured — 36 sailors and 23 civilians — were released from several area hospitals by Monday afternoon, a Navy spokeswoman said. They had been treated for injuries including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Now, attention has turned to the fate of the ship, and to the impact that the billowing smoke may have on communities near the naval base.
The devastating fire, and its rapid spread throughout the ship, is a threat that warships zealously guard against. All Navy recruits receive some degree of firefighting training, and they 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 usually keep about one-fifth or one-sixth of their crew aboard even while in their home port, enough to get underway in an emergency, or to field firefighting crews should the need arise.
On Monday, tugboats shot water into an open hangar bay of the Bonhomme Richard as helicopters tipped huge buckets onto the flight deck. Sailors on board were forced to “dewater” the ship at the same time to stabilize the Bonhomme Richard, which is listing to one side from water used in firefighting, Rear Adm. Philip E. Sobeck said at a briefing.
Admiral Sobeck, the commander of the Navy expeditionary strike group whose flagship is the Bonhomme Richard, said there had been burn damage all the way through the skin of the ship. He did not directly respond to a question about whether the hull had been damaged.
Asked whether the ship could be saved, Admiral Sobeck said: “Right now, we’re doing everything we can to do exactly just that. Once we get the fire out, which is the priority, then we make that assessment.” He added later that he was “absolutely hopeful” that the ship would sail again.
At first glance, the Bonhomme Richard looks much like 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 jets. But its primary mission is as a massive amphibious assault ship, capable of carrying about 1,200 Marines and landing them on a beach with amphibious vehicles while its aircraft simultaneously provide close-air support.
Commissioned in 1998, the Bonhomme Richard, named for Benjamin Franklin using his pen name, is one of eight ships in its class, and was nearing the end of a lengthy period of shipyard repairs following a six-year deployment with the Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Sasebo, Japan.
The exact cause of the blaze was unclear. But Admiral Sobeck said sailors on board said that it had started in a cavernous open area used for storing trucks and amphibious vehicles used by Marines and that it may have been fueled by heavy-duty cardboard boxes and other materials in storage.
Admiral Sobeck said one of the ship’s methods of fire suppression, its halon system, was not operating because it was being worked on in the shipyard. But since halon is typically installed only in certain discrete compartments, such as in engine rooms, it was not clear whether that had an impact in fighting the fire.
A pillar of smoke from the Bonhomme Richard has swept south with the prevailing winds, driving a plume carrying bits of paint, asphalt, plastic and ash across Imperial Beach, Calif., and into Mexico. In the opposite direction, residents have also reported smelling smoke from the fire as far away as Del Mar, 25 miles north.
The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District warned on Monday that the thick smoke swelling from the ship could pose health risks because of rising levels of fine particulates.
“In areas of heavy smoke, assume that air quality levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups to unhealthy for all individuals,” the district warned.
The fact that the fire broke out on a Sunday, when most of the crew was off the ship, underlines the particular and persistent threat that fire poses to warships, where even while in port, industrial work and maintenance can go on at all hours of the day, even on weekends.
Ships like the Bonhomme Richard are often rotated through tours in Japan, where the tempo of operations is the highest in the Navy, leading to heavy wear and tear that is usually addressed with lengthy periods in a dry dock upon their return to the United States. Before the fire, the Bonhomme Richard was completing an extended shipyard period ahead of its next deployment. Now the ship faces an uncertain future.
The Navy cannot even begin to know the scope of the work ahead until the last fire is extinguished and all of the red-hot steel has cooled. Firefighters wearing air tanks have returned to the inside of the ship after the Bonhomme Richard was completely evacuated on Sunday afternoon.
Even in cases of catastrophic damage, however, the Navy has a long history of bringing badly destroyed ships back to life.
In 1987, the U.S.S. Stark was saved after being hit by two Iraqi missiles and returned to service. The next year, the frigate U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts survived after striking a naval mine in the Persian Gulf.
During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the cruiser U.S.S. Princeton and the amphibious ship U.S.S. Tripoli both struck naval mines; they later returned to duty.
And in 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was kept afloat after being attacked by a suicide boat packed with explosives that tore a 30-foot wide hole in its hull. It was placed onto a heavy-lift ship that transported it back to the United States for repairs before it was later returned to service.
Similar lift ships were used to carry two other destroyers in recent years after collisions at sea. One of them, the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, was moored just across the pier from the Bonhomme Richard and ultimately moved by tugboats after being overwhelmed by smoke billowing from the larger ship.