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Bonhomme Richard is ‘survivable,’ Navy official says, after fires that burned four days are extinguished

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12. On the morning of July 12, a fire was called away aboard the ship while it was moored pier side at Naval Base San Diego. Local, base and shipboard firefighters responded to the fire. USS Bonhomme Richard is going through a maintenance availability, which began in 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. John J. Mike/Released)

A blaze that engulfed the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard for more than four days was extinguished Thursday, Navy officials announced.

What is still unknown about one of the worst noncombat Naval fires is its cause, the extent of the damage and whether and when the ship will be repaired. An investigation is expected to take weeks.

Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said at a news conference Thursday the ship is salvageable.

“The survivability of the ship is there — it’s survivable,” he said. “It’s in stable condition all the way through.”

Crews still must inspect the ship thoroughly to put down all hot spots, Sobeck said.

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“The flames are out, but the heat is still there,” he said. “We’re going space by space as I speak to every compartment checking for hot spots.”

Once this is done, Sobeck said, the fire will be officially out.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Sobeck said the cause of the fire will remain unknown until an investigation is finished.

He has said a spark from an unknown source could have ignited heavy-duty cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies stored in the lower vehicle storage area. The fire then traveled upward to the well deck — a wide hangarlike area — and took off from there.

“We did not know the origin of the fire,” Sobeck said Thursday in the statement.

“We do not know the extent of the damage. Our fire teams are investigating every space to verify the absence of fire. Until every space is checked and there are no active fires we will not be able to commence any official investigations.

“What we do know is that brave Sailors from commands all across San Diego worked tirelessly alongside Federal Firefighters to get this fire extinguished and I want to thank them for their efforts.”

According to Sobeck, 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries such as smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion during the roughly 100-hourlong firefight.

Temperatures topped 1,200 degrees F at the height of the inferno, Sobeck said Thursday — a temperature that had water from fire hoses turning to steam as soon as fire teams tried to engage.

The fire on the 844-foot ship began around 8:30 a.m. Sunday and sent acrid plumes of smoke into the San Diego skies for two days. By Tuesday morning, the plume was noticeably smaller, although the smell of the fire stayed in neighborhoods nearest the base through Thursday.

Firefighting crews from a dozen San Diego-based ships — more than 400 sailors — assisted federal firefighters from bases throughout Southern California at fighting the fire. Navy helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 dumped more than 1,500 buckets of water on the ship around the clock.

Tug boats also shot water onto the ship, cooling the ship’s hull.

Several photos of the damage to the ship’s island superstructure and interior were posted online over the last two days, showing entire spaces blackened by fire and smoke, as well as at least two large holes in the island’s roof. The forward mast — located on the island — collapsed early Monday.

Sobeck explained Thursday that the damage to the island is due, in part, to the material with which it was constructed.

“It’s aluminum; it’s a softer metal,” Sobeck said. “You saw (in the photos) the remnants of what high heat does to aluminum. The deck underneath is secure. Now that things are starting to cool off, we can go in and assess what the real issues are.”

Wednesday night, the Bonhomme Richard shifted and listed toward the pier, prompting the Navy to pull off firefighting sailors searching the bowels of the warship for remaining hot spots.

The withdrawal of the roughly 30 sailors was out of an abundance of caution; there was no fear that the ship would capsize, Lt. Cmdr. Patricia Kreuzberger told The Associated Press. Crews went back on the ship within an hour.

Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for Naval Surface Forces Pacific in San Diego, said Wednesday that 84 sailors who lived on the Bonhomme Richard full time have been moved to living quarters on Naval Base San Diego. While it’s unclear exactly which spaces on board the ship have burned, the crew’s living quarters was among them.

The Bonhomme Richard cost $761 million, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, and was at the end of a two-year, $250 million upgrade to accommodate the F-35B fighter. It is one of a handful of similarly equipped amphibious assault ships.

Defense officials have been eyeing the mini-aircraft carriers as a way to keep the newest generation of fighters continually available in the Pacific, as the U.S. counters strategic threats from China.

If the ship is saved, it likely will be out of action for an extended period, which could limit what the Navy can do in deploying its forces, military observers say.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.