- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2020

Smoke and flames poured into the sky for a second day from the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Monday, but Navy officials were upbeat about battling the blaze, the cause of which remains under investigation.

More than 24 hours after an explosion rocked the amphibious assault ship, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 3 evoked the famous naval battle cry from the War of 1812: “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

At a press conference at U.S. Naval Base San Diego, where the ship is docked, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck also told reporters that he was “absolutely hopeful” teamwork from the sailors and local firefighters would save the Bonhomme Richard.

“They are aboard the ship and they are not stopping,” the rear admiral said. “We’ve been at this for more than 24 hours and we’re going to get at it until it’s done.”

His comments came after the U.S. Pacific Fleet had tweeted early Monday morning that “57 personnel” — including 34 Navy sailors and 23 civilians — had been treated for minor injuries, such as smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, caused by the fire.

Adm. Mike Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, said in a statement that the crew of the Bonhomme Richard had all been accounted for. “We are grateful for the quick and immediate response of local, base and shipboard firefighters,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with our sailors, their families and our emergency responders who continue to fight the fire. Godspeed.”

The cause of the blaze aboard the nearly 850-foot-long Bonhomme Richard remained a mystery Monday afternoon, as flames continued to rip through several sections, with smoke erupting from the “island,” the elevated section on the deck containing the command-and-control areas.

The Bonhomme Richard has a crew of roughly 1,000 and officials said about 160 were on board when the fire broke out on the ship in San Diego, where it was docked receiving routine maintenance.

The fire was first reported Sunday in a lower cargo hold where equipment is stored belonging to the ship’s complement of U.S. Marines. Navy officials said they don’t anticipate determining the cause until the flames are fully extinguished. The ship has a fire suppression system to extinguish a blaze using halon gas, but Rear Adm. Sobeck said it had been disabled because of maintenance work being done aboard the ship.

He also said Sunday’s explosion may have been the result of a backdraft caused by over-pressurization in one of the ship’s compartments. “There’s a heat source and we’re trying to get to it as well,” he said. “But, there is a lot of scaffolding and debris in the way.”

U.S. Navy sailors are taught firefighting tactics in basic training because when at sea their ships are beyond the range of assistance. Dozens began fighting the flames Sunday, but the blaze spread quickly. “The fire had a vote. It expanded,” Rear Adm. Sobeck said. “It expanded beyond their capabilities.”

A pair of helicopters from the Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 spent several hours Monday dousing the ship with giant water-filled buckets. Navy officials said they were cognizant of environmental concerns tied to the fire but don’t see a health hazard to people in the area.

Navy ships have been the scene of devastating fires in the past. In January 1969, 27 sailors were killed after an explosion aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. Two years earlier, 134 sailors were killed from a chain-reaction of explosions and fire aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal. In both cases, the fires were blamed on ordnance problems.

Rear Adm. Sobeck said there will be an inquiry and opportunity to learn any lessons from the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard. “Right now, the priority is to fight the fire and get it out,” he said.

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