When the 1MC, the general announcing system aboard ship, calls away an actual emergency those words compel sailors instinctively into action. The fire that broke out Sunday morning, 12 July, on the USS Bon Homme Richard (LHD6) is still burning on Tuesday. However, the billowing smoke and flames that were visible within the superstructure early Monday seem to have been knocked down by the firefighting crews and hundreds of helicopter water drops. Yesterday, the volume of water to suppress the fire and cool the hull caused the ship to list slightly, but video today show the pumps aboard removed it adequately. Anytime a fire breaks out on a ship, it is an extremely hazardous time, but the condition of the ship when undergoing pierside maintenance made the conflagration it became Sunday and Monday.
As we have learned, the vessel was undergoing maintenance at the 32nd Street Navy Base after a two-year shipyard period nearby. (Almost every ship performs scheduled maintenance, which does not require being placed in drydock, at the pier.) While munitions do not remain aboard a ship during maintenance periods, the move to the Navy base indicated that it was in a state to have some daily operations continue. As the Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 3, stated during a briefing, the major concern in mitigating the ongoing fire was keeping it away from the fuel supply stored decks below the fire. A semi-operational ship like the Bon Homme Richard has fuel, likely to stabilize the ship, while at the pier. With metropolitan San Diego and County residents within a thirty mile arc, the plume of smoke was an air quality concern. An operational Navy ship has stores, supplies, paper, bedding, and other combustible materials aboard. These, plus cleansers, lining of cabling and plastics in varied equipment will burn or vaporize, adding potential toxics to the smoke plumes. What made the conflagration so intense so rapidly was the inoperative HALON fire suppression system, which was itself, undergoing maintenance.
It is reassuring to know that the injuries that the sailors and civilians have sustained as a result of battling the fire are not very serious. As a sailor who spent several years aboard Navy combatants, I know crews are very well trained for emergencies such as this. The Navy team, comprised of officer and enlisted sailors, civilians, and other military and civilian firefighters are working around the clock to save the ship. The Navy will perform a very thorough investigation once the fire has been extinguished, and the Navy can expect the lessons applied to future pierside periods and training. However, with the intensity of the damage expected from the heat and flames, the confident “do not give up the ship!” attitude may be tempered. After a quarter-billion dollar refit, it likely may take a lot more to make her Bon Homme Richard.
UPDATED AT 2PM EST:
WASHINGTON (NNS) — UPDATED 2:00 p.m. July 14, 2020:
Below is the press conference opening statement from Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 3.
Good morning. My name is Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck, and I am the Expeditionary Strike Group THREE commander. I’d like to start by thanking the people of San Diego, National City, Coronado, and all the other communities in San Diego County for their continued support. For more than 48 hours, brave Sailors from commands all across San Diego have been working tirelessly alongside Federal Fire San Diego to get this fire under control and I want to thank them for their efforts. I want to provide you with some updates on the progress we have made: First, we have investigated the four main engineering spaces and found no major damage. There is no threat to the fuel tanks, which is well-below any active fires or heat sources. The ship is stable and the structure is safe. We still have an active fire, which we are combatting from both within and outside the ship from multiple access points. HSC 3 helicopters have conducted more than 1,000 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 provide firefighting support from the waterline. I’m proud of the toughness of the Sailors and Federal Firefighters for making this significant progress possible. At this time there are 61 personnel, 38 U.S. Navy Sailors and 23 civilians, have been treated for minor injuries including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Currently, there are no personnel hospitalized. Going forward, the Navy will do a thorough investigation of the incident to include assessing the cause of the fire and damage to the ship, but right now our focus remains on putting out the fire and keeping people safe. I’d like to also thank our partners from state and county as well as the Coast Guard for monitoring the potential impacts to the environment. As we continue to fight the fire, we remain cognizant of environmental concerns regarding the water and air quality. We recommend residents follow county advisories for safety out of an abundance of caution. Thank you again for your being here and we are now ready to take your questions.