Fire fighters battle major fire on US Navy’s USS Bonhomme Richard, fighting to keep the flames away from 1 million gallons of fuel onboard
A blaze broke out followed by a subsequent explosion onboard the US Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard on Sunday, 12h00 July 2020, injuring dozens. The ship was in harbour for repair and upgrades at Naval Station San Diego, US. On the morning of 12 July, the fire was called away aboard the ship while it was moored pierside at Naval Base San Diego. Base and shipboard fire fighters responded to the fire. The fire onboard Bonhomme Richard started at around 8h30am on Sunday. After 90 minutes, authorities decided to remove all 160 crews/fire fighters from the vessel for safety reasons and battle the fire remotely, instead. The commanding officer of Expeditionary Strike Group 3 said that keeping the flames from the one million gallons of fuel onboard while preventing listing, were the priorities. Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck said he remained hopeful that the amphib would get underway again; the damage he described, as well as photos and videos of the inferno, painted a grim future for the ship. “The superstructure and the upper decks continue to burn and have sustained damage,” Rear Admiral Sobeck said at 11h00am local time. “The forward mast has collapsed and the ship is listing. However, dewatering is in process and we’re keeping a good balance.” 57 personnel, 34 of them sailors, were injured and treated mostly for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. An update from the US Navy on Thursday, 16 July 2020, stated that out of an abundance of caution the pier and ship were cleared of personnel due to an initial shift in the ship’s list. “Personnel are now pier side. We will continue to monitor as the ship settles.”
Rear Admiral Sobeck said they estimated there are roughly two well decks between fuel and the fire, which has been measured as high as 1 000 degrees in spots. “Estimates are right now that we’ve got at least two decks between the heat source” and the fuel, he said. Cooling agents are being circulated around the ship in the water to keep temperatures down, Sobeck said. The inferno “has spread throughout the ship” he said, adding that there was “burn damage all the way through the skin of the ship.”
“The superstructure and the island have again been flashing tremendous amount of heat underneath,” he said. Bonhomme Richard was in the midst of extensive maintenance and modernisation to accommodate the F-35 fighter jet when the fire broke out. As part of that maintenance, Sobeck said the Halon fire suppression system had been turned off. “Halon, the system itself, was not operational because it was being worked on in the shipyard,” Sobeck said. He stated that the fire was first reported in a cargo hold that was full of shipyard supplies like tri-wall, rags and other materials. “Lots of scaffolding, lots of debris in the way,” he said.
Maintenance often involves big coils of cable snaking throughout the ship, which may have made it harder to seal hatches and isolate the fire.
More than 400 sailors from commands along the waterfront have boarded the ship to fight the fire and occasional pressurisation effects have resulted in a back and forth as the sailors fight to save the ship. As the fire spread, local San Diego and nearby fire agencies sent fire fighting trucks and equipment to the base to augment the initial efforts by the ship’s sailors and damage-control teams that typically respond to onboard emergencies.
The fact that the Bonhomme Richard was in port for maintenance on a Sunday morning when the fire broke out was a worst-case confluence of events, according to Lawrence Brennan, a retired Navy captain who teaches admiralty law at Fordham University. “A ship in the shipyard with ‘X’ men and women as opposed to a crew of over a thousand can’t respond as well,” he said. “Fires on Sunday morning at 08h00 are never good. I feel sorry for the command duty officer,” he added. Brennan said he feared the fire would reach the fuel if it isn’t controlled or extinguished soon. “And if that fire lasts a week, the hull’s going to fail,” he said. “If the hull splits, it’s a disaster. So that’s what I’m looking for: can they prevent this from becoming worse?”
Efforts are under way to stop the fire from reaching the ship's fuel tanks. The heat is so intense in places within the structure (1 000 degrees Celsius) that fires that have been extinguished restart soon after. The intense heat is also a worry for the men hoping the ship could still be salvaged: The damage done to the steel structure and hull could have very well condemned the vessel.
Federal Fire Department San Diego and US Navy Sailors continue to fight the fire to save the ship, USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Three (HSC 3) has conducted more than 1 500 helicopter water bucket drops, which is cooling the super structure and flight deck enabling fire crews to get onboard internally to fight the fire. Tugs are also providing fire fighting support from the waterline.
The fire teams consist of more than 400 Sailors from 12 San Diego-based ships. The ships providing fire fighting support include:
Federal Fire entities include MCAS Miramar, San Diego, Ventura County and NAF El Centro with additional DOD fire fighting agencies Camp Pendleton Fire Department and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Centre Fire Department.
On 13 July 2020 at approximately 16h00, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and USS Russell (DDG 59) shifted berths to a pier further away from the fire.
Source: US Navy