Fire aboard ship at Naval Base San Diego could last several days

Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego after an explosion and fire Sunday on board the ship.
Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego after an explosion and fire Sunday on board the ship.

Credit: Denis Poroy

Credit: Denis Poroy

57 have been treated for minor injuries

Firefighters and 400 sailors are continuing to battle a fire that began Sunday morning aboard a U.S. Navy ship that injured at least 57 and sent smoke billowing over San Diego.

At least five people remain hospitalized Monday for injuries that ranged from heat exhaustion to smoke inhalation, according to reports.

And the fire could burn for several more days, the latest reports say.

The inferno, which sent huge plumes of dark smoke up from Naval Base San Diego, began in a vehicle storage area aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, an 840-foot amphibious assault vessel that was undergoing routine maintenance, according to The Associated Press, citing a statement by Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck.  Sobek provided an update Monday afternoon, saying the the forward mast of the ship had collapsed.

All crew members were accounted for, said Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations.

The Navy said it believes the fire began somewhere in a lower cargo hold where marine equipment and vehicles are stored, and that an explosion was probably caused by a change in air pressure.

Sobeck told the San Diego Union-Tribune there were no weapons or munitions on board.

The ship’s million-gallon fuel tanks were also situated “well below” the fire and were not the source of the blaze, said Sobeck.

The fire is likely being fueled by paper, cloth, rags or other materials, Sobeck said.

Only 160 crew and officers were on board when the explosion happened. Routinely a thousand sailors could be on the ship when on active duty, said Mike Raney, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Sobeck said Sunday that 17 sailors and four others, including firefighters, were initially hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

The blaze is said to be burning deep within the interior of the ship, but flames have also been seen above deck.

The USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, which were docked nearby, have been moved.

The blaze has proved stubborn, requiring helicopters to drop water from above, firefighting vessels to shoot water from the bay, and fire trucks to direct water hoses from the dock, according to The Associated Press.

“We are grateful for the quick and immediate response of local, base, and shipboard firefighters aboard USS Bonhomme Richard,” Gilday said in a statement.

The 23-year-old ship has the capacity to deploy and land helicopters, 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.”

— Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.

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