SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Navy announced Thursday that the fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard has been extinguished, ending one of the worst infernos to rip through a U.S. warship outside of combat in recent years.
Now the attention is turning to the fate of the 840-foot (255-meter) amphibious assault ship — whose forward mast collapsed. Once it’s safe, officials plan to go compartment by compartment to examine its charred bowels and determine if it is salvageable.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — After burning for days, the massive USS Bonhomme Richard shifted in the night and listed toward the pier, prompting the Navy to pull off firefighting sailors searching in the bowels of the U.S. warship for remaining hot spots, Navy officials said Thursday.
The withdrawal of the roughly 30 sailors on board late Wednesday when the shift occurred was out of an abundance of caution and there is no fear of the 840-foot (255-meter) vessel capsizing, said Lt. Cmdr. Patricia Kreuzberger. They were back on the ship within an hour.
“Whenever a situation changes, the call is made for everyone to pull back and assess things for safety,” she said.
The Navy was keeping a close eye on any movements as the ship settles after burning since Sunday. The fire started in its lower armored vehicle storage area and quickly spread throughout the amphibious assault ship that is akin to a mini-aircraft carrier.
Helicopters have dumped more than 1,500 buckets of water on the ship, which had been docked in San Diego harbor undergoing maintenance.
The Navy believes a spark from an unknown source first ignited heavy-duty cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies that were being stored in the lower vehicle storage area.
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, the commander of the strike group whose flagship is the Bonhomme Richard, has said he is hopeful the ship can still be repaired but no one will know until it is safe enough for crews to access all areas.
It could cost an estimated $4 billion to replace the ship if it is deemed un-salvageable. The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a two-year-long upgrade estimated to cost $250 million. It was being done so the ship 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.