Firefighters still battling a blaze on a US Navy combat ship

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WASHINGTON: July 14: Firefighters still battling a blaze on a US Navy combat ship , docked in San Diego, that injured at least 57 people including 34 sailors and 23 civilians .

The ship, the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, was docked at the U.S. naval base in San Diego when a fire was reported in a lower cargo hold that is used for vehicle storage, the Navy said. About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time.

Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group said at a press conference that the priority is to extinguish the fire, but he did not give an estimate for how long it would take to put it out. “We’ve been at it for over 24 hours now and we’re going to get it until it’s done,” he said.

The ship’s superstructure and upper decks have sustained damage and the forward mast has collapsed, Sobeck said. There was an explosion shortly after the fire began.

The ship is listing but Sobeck said sailors and firefighters are removing water to make sure the ship does not list further.
The ship does have fuel on board, but Sobeck said there are roughly two decks between the fuel and a heat source, and firefighters are working to maintain a buffer between the two.

The injuries were not life-threatening, and included heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. All crew members had been accounted for, the Navy said, and five sailors remained hospitalized in stable condition. Fire Chief Colin Stowell of San Diego told that the fire could burn for several days.

Adm. Philip E. Sobeck said at a news conference on Monday that the ship was listing, though he did not say by how much, and that 400 sailors had been working over the previous 24 hours to save the ship.

He said he was “absolutely hopeful” about those prospects, adding that “dewatering” efforts were continuing.

Initially, 17 sailors and four civilians were reported injured but by early on Monday the number had grown to 57 and five remained hospitalised for observation, the Navy said.

Firefighters attacked the flames inside the ship while firefighting vessels with water cannons directed streams of seawater into the ship and helicopters made water drops.

He said there was no ordnance on board, and while the ship holds a million gallons (3.7 million liters) of fuel it was well below any heat source.

About 160 sailors and officers were on board when an explosion and flames sent up a huge plume of dark smoke from the 840-foot (255-meter) amphibious assault vessel, which has been docked at Naval Base San Diego.

That’s far fewer than the thousand typically on the ship when its on active duty, said Mike Raney, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force, US Pacific Fleet. All crew members were accounted for, said Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations.

Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said the Navy thinks the fire began somewhere in a lower cargo hold where equipment and vehicles are stored.

The fire spread up into office and personnel berths where it was fueled by paper, cloth, rags or other materials in a standard fire, Sobeck said. He said he was not concerned about the air quality or toxicity around the fire.

“There was a report of an internal explosion,” Sobeck said. “What we cannot ascertain is exactly what the explosion was caused from.” The admiral suggested that the compartment heated up and over-pressurised.

The 23-year-old ship has the capacity to deploy and land helicopters, certain types of short-takeoff airplanes, smaller boats and amphibious vehicles.

Because of its age, a fire could be particularly destructive, especially if it reached the engine room and other tight spaces with machinery, said Lawrence B. Brennan, a professor of admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham University in New York.

The heat of a fire of this nature can warp the steel, and that can be a major problem for any ship, said Brennan. On an older ship, it’s even more of a problem.

Two other docked ships, USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, were moved to berths away from the fire, officials said.

The ship was commissioned in 1998, and is the third to bear the name Bonhomme Richard. During the Revolutionary War, Capt. John Paul Jones named the first ship after the French translation of the pen name Benjamin Franklin used as the author of Poor Richards Almanac.

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