Navy Says At Least One Fire Continues To Burn On The USS Bonhomme Richard

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck, head of Expeditionary Strike Group Three, says that the USS Bonhomme Richard is stable and structurally safe despite a still ongoing fire onboard the Wasp class amphibious assault ship. The vessel has now been burning continuously for more than 48 hours now and has produced sustained temperatures of at least 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas.

Sobeck addressed reporters at Naval Base San Diego, where the Bonhomme Richard is still pier-side, on July 14, 2020, during his third press conference in as many days. He was joined by the commanding officer of the base, Navy Captain Mark Nieswiadomy, Navy Region Southwest Environmental Director Jason Golumbfskie-Jones, head of Coast Sector San Diego Captain Timothy Barelli, and Federal Fire San Diego Chief Mary Anderson.

You can get fully up to speed on how the fire has developed and the state of the Bonhomme Richard in The War Zone‘s previous rolling coverage of this situation.

The key new details from this latest press conference are:

  • The ship is stable and the structure is safe.
  • No major damage to the ship’s four main engineering spaces.
  • No threat to the ship’s fuel tanks at present.
  • The fuel tanks are well below any of the remaining active fires or heat sources, so any risk to them at this point is low.
  • The ship has salt water-filled compensation tanks that also help keep the fuel tanks cool.
  • There is at least one active fire in a forward area of the ship.
  • Firefighters had been unable to get to those spaces until today.
  • There is another heat source that could be another fire aft.
  • These two areas are isolated from each other.
  • Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Three (HSC-3), based at nearby Naval Air Station North Island, has conducted more than 1,200 water bucket drops, in total.
  • In addition to other external firefighting operations, these drops have been essential in allowing firefighters to actually get on the ship. 
  • 61 personnel have been injured, in total, so far, 38 sailors and 23 civilians.
  • None of those individuals are hospitalized.
  • An explosion occurred while the crew was securing the space where the initial fire had broken out before they could safely energize the fire suppression system.
  • The fire spread rapidly from the front to the rear of the ship.
  • Navy is working with San Diego authorities to step up monitoring of potential adverse environmental impacts.
  • Coast Guard is prepared to respond to any potential environmental issues, including an oil spill.
  • No visible evidence of oil spill at present.
  • Hope that all fires will be out within the next 24 hours.
  • Too early to tell the full extent of the damage.

The Navy’s position that the ship, which has been visibly listing, is stable and structurally sound is a significant and positive development. There had been concerns that areas that had been exposed to persistent temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit could be compromised.

Still, the pictures that have already emerged online show significant internal damage, as well as to the flight deck and superstructure. It will take the Navy a not-insignificant amount of time to just conduct a full damage assessment.

The situation certainly continues to be serious, as well, even as the remaining fires are increasingly under control. Of the 61 injuries, two occurred just overnight. Thankfully, the pair of Navy sailors did not need to be hospitalized. 

The Navy had also earlier announced that five sailors who had been in the hospital after suffering minor injuries after the fire broke out on July 12 had been released. They were the last of a group of 17 who had needed more serious medical attention.

The exact cause of the fire remains under investigation, but the Navy had previously said that it began in Bonhomme Richard‘s lower vehicle storage area, where large amounts of cardboard, rags, drywall, and other flammable material had been present as part of maintenance on the ship. That work also meant that many of the spaces were full of debris and other obstacles, which made the firefighters’ jobs harder, as well.

“There’s plastics that go around cabling, those kind of things, there’s different rags, there’s all the things that are used to kind of maintain the ship, clean the ship … and so right now we’re testing and we’re checking everything that we know, and we’re within EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] standards,” Rear Admiral Sobeck had told reporters yesterday, also addressing potential environmental concerns. The San Diego Air Pollution Control District has advised local residents to stay indoors, if possible, to avoid potential exposure to pollutants. 

“A one-nautical mile temporary flight-restriction zone from surface to 3,000 feet altitude has been established to maintain the safety of all firefighting aircraft,” U.S. Coast Guard Commander Chris Wright, the head of the response department at Coast Guard Sector San Diego, said in a statement on July 13, according to Defense News. “Neighboring marinas are also currently being advised to utilize protective safety measures.”

The Coast Guard “continues to assess environmental sensitivities and has contracted an Oil Spill Response Organization to preemptively deploy a protective boom to guard against any potential environmental concerns,” Wight added. Bonhomme Richard had approximately one million gallons of fuel onboard when the fire started. The Navy said yesterday that the blaze was just two decks away from the ship’s fuel tanks.

While the Navy has not yet declared whether it believes the ship to be a total loss, if it is unable to repair the ship and return it to service, it could impact the service’s ability to respond to various contingencies. Including Bonhomme Richard, the Navy presently has eight Wasp class amphibious assault ships. It also has two newer America class amphibious assault ships, including the USS Tripoli, which is the first example a distinct subclass.

This category of ships forms the core of the Navy’s Amphibious Ready Groups, which, together with embarked U.S. Marine Corps expeditionary units, sometimes with significant airpower in the form of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, are constantly patrolling or otherwise postured around the world. It is worth noting that the Marine Corps is now exploring new concepts operations that do not necessarily involve the use of traditional large amphibious warfare ships.

It remains to be seen exactly what will become of the Bonhomme Richard, but the Navy is clearly still hopeful that the ship will be salvageable at the end of the day.

Navy sailors and civilian firefighters stand at attention for reveille at Naval Base San Diego as the USS Bonhomme Richard continues to burn in the background., USN

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

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