Sailors battle hot spots on 4th day of naval warship fire
Experts say the blaze shows the unique difficulties of fighting shipboard fires
SAN DIEGO — Sailors are inching their way through the bowels of a U.S. Navy warship in Southern California to douse every smoldering hot spot from a fire that has burned for days aboard the docked vessel.
Four days after the initial spark, the blaze aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard was 85% contained on Wednesday and the threat that the blaze would reach fuel tanks holding some million gallons of oil had receded.
But hundreds of firefighting sailors moved deeper into the vessel to extinguish any remaining pockets of fire in two areas at the bow and stern, Navy officials said.
Helicopters have dumped 1,500 buckets of water on the ship, which is docked in San Diego harbor, cooling the superstructure and flight deck.
The fire erupted Sunday morning aboard the 840-foot (255-meter) amphibious assault ship. Flames were reported first in its lower area where armored vehicles are parked and where heavy-duty cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies were being stored.
The fire traveled upward to the well deck — a wide hangar type area — and took off from there, Navy officials have said.
The fire at one point reached up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees Celsius), threatening to soften steel.
Experts said shipboard fires are difficult to douse.
“It’s very difficult to choke off oxygen in open deck spaces” and then to follow the flames into all the nooks on a craft, said maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan, who served in the Navy.
It’s not uncommon for ship fires to take days to extinguish, he added, pointing to a fire last month on a car-carrying cargo ship that burned for eight days in Jacksonville, Florida.
The difficulty was compounded aboard the Bonhomme Richard because it was undergoing maintenance and there was scaffolding, along with other equipment and debris in the way of firefighters. One of the ship’s fire suppression systems also was deactivated because of the maintenance project.
Retired Capt. Lawrence Brennan, a professor of international maritime law at Fordham University in New York, said even spraying water on a ship fire can be risky: If any aluminum on board melted on plywood the combination could create aluminum carbide, which, in turn, can generate a flammable methane when sprayed with water.
“An uncontrollable fire like this one is among sailors’ worst fears,” he said, adding that’s why ships are designed to have compartments that can be closed off quickly with airtight doors.
Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, who commands the strike group that includes the Bonhomme Richard as its flagship, has said he is hopeful the ship can still be repaired but no one will know until the fire is completely out and crews can safely access all areas.
It could cost an estimated $4 billion to replace the ship if it is deemed un-salvageable. The Bonhomme Richard had been docked since 2018 and was nearing the end of an estimated $250 million upgrade so it could start being used to deploy the Marine Corps’ F-35Bs in the Pacific.
More than 60 sailors and civilians have been treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.