Official: Firefighting system was inoperable on Navy ship
San Diego – A fire suppression system was inoperable when a blaze erupted aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego, so sailors fought the blaze with water, a top Navy official said Monday.
Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said the Halon gas system had been turned off because it was being worked on while the amphibious assault ship was undergoing maintenance work.
The fire erupted Sunday morning and continues to burn. It broke out in a lower cargo area where cardboard and drywall supplies were stored and firefighters initially fought it with water until they had to withdraw, Sobeck said. Halon is a liquefied compressed gas that disrupts the chemical process of a fire.
At least 57 people were treated for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries. Five remained in hospitalized under observation.
Sobeck said fire had spread throughout the ship Monday. The flames were burning plastic, cabling and other material but there was still a buffer of about two decks between the fire and fuel supplies.
“In the last 24 hours, 400 sailors have been on board that ship to make sure that, you know, we’re making every effort to save that ship,” said Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3.
The fire sent acrid smoke billowing over San Diego, and local officials recommended people avoid exercising outdoors.
Firefighters attacked the flames inside the ship while firefighting vessels with water cannons directed streams of seawater into the ship and helicopters made water drops.
Sobeck said there was no ordnance on board, and while the ship holds a million gallons (3.7 million liters) of fuel, it was “well below” any heat source.
About 160 sailors and officers were on board when an explosion and flames sent up a huge plume of dark smoke from the 840-foot (255-meter) amphibious assault vessel, which has been docked at Naval Base San Diego. That’s far fewer than the thousand typically on the ship when it’s on active duty, said Mike Raney, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
All crew members were accounted for, said Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations.
The San Diego Air Pollution Control District warned that concentrations of fine particulate matter could reach unhealthful levels in some areas and that people should limit exposure, staying indoors if possible.
The fire spread up from the lower area into office and personnel berths where it was fueled by paper, cloth, rags or other materials, Sobeck said. He said he was not concerned about the air quality or toxicity around the fire.
The admiral said an explosion appears to be from a compartment heating up and over-pressurized.
The 23-year-old ship has the capacity to deploy and land helicopters, certain types of short-takeoff airplanes, smaller boats and amphibious vehicles.
Because of its age, a fire could be particularly destructive, especially if it reached the engine room and other tight spaces with machinery, said Lawrence B. Brennan, a professor of admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham University in New York.
“The heat of a fire of this nature can warp the steel, and that can be a major problem for any ship,” said Brennan. “On an older ship, it’s even more of a problem.”
Brennan said it was worrisome that the fire continued to burn for more than a full day.
“My guess is that … there’s going to be a lot of internal damage,” he said.
Two other docked ships, USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, were moved to berths away from the fire, officials said.
The ship was commissioned in 1998, and is the third to bear the name Bonhomme Richard. During the Revolutionary War, Capt. John Paul Jones named the first ship after the French translation of the pen name Benjamin Franklin used as the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and John Antczak contributed from Los Angeles.