Blaze continues aboard Navy ship on San Diego Bay

Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Sunday, July 12, 2020, in San Diego after an explosion and fire Sunday on board the ship at Naval Base San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – More firefighting efforts were underway Tuesday morning on the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego as crews labor to contain a super-hot, explosive blaze that has injured scores of military personnel and civilians and caused extensive damage to the warship.
Naval forces were “doing everything they can” to save the ship more than 24 hours after the conflagration erupted on its lower decks, sending temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees in parts of the vessel and leaving it listing in the water, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told reporters during a late-morning briefing Monday.
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, Sobeck acknowledged, though he expressed confidence that firefighters could keep the blaze away from that storage area.
The fire began shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday in a part of the vessel where cardboard and drywall supplies are kept, according to the Navy and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. 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.
A total of 59 crew members — three dozen sailors and 23 civilians — battling the blaze have suffered various minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, according to Navy officials. Five were hospitalized in stable condition, though all of those patients had been released as of late Monday afternoon.
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.
The cause of the blaze remains unknown, Sobeck said. Because the vessel was undergoing maintenance work when the fire broke out, its built-in flame-suppression system was inoperative, he told reporters.
Among the precautions in the area of the blaze were a one-nautical-mile safety zone on the waters around the ship and in the air — to 3,000 feet above that area — both instituted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard also was 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 USCG public affairs.
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.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer pledged that city official are “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 National Weather Service reported that the area of smoke concentrations would shift throughout the day as the onshore winds kick in and that the smoke should lift as the temperatures rise.
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.