Crews continue battling stubborn blaze aboard Navy ship on San Diego Bay
SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Military and civilian emergency crews spent a third day battling a stubborn, super-hot blaze aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Tuesday, laboring to subdue a perilous conflagration that has injured scores of firefighters and caused extensive damage to the warship.
Despite the destructiveness of the fire, however, Navy officials reported late Tuesday morning that the vessel appeared to have escaped irreparable harm, though all-out efforts to quell the flames were ongoing within the ship and from outside it.
“The ship is stable, and (its) structure is safe,” Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told reporters during a briefing at the naval base south of downtown San Diego.
The fire was posing no active threat to the vessel’s fuel tanks, which were “well below any active fire or heat sources,” 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, sending thick columns of acrid smoke above the bay, according to the Navy and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
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 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.
The conflagration sent temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees in parts of the vessel and left it listing in the water, officials said.
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, the admiral 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.
There were 160 sailors and officers aboard the ship when the fire broke out, Navy spokesman Brian O’Rourke said.
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, Sobeck said.
“Going forward, the Navy will do a thorough investigation of the incident, to assess the cause of the fire (and) damage to the ship,” the admiral said. “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 around the ship and up to 3,000 feet in the air.
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 can 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 this morning.
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 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.