A catastrophic fire broke out Sunday morning aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. She was pierside at Naval Base San Diego for routine maintenance.
A fire was reported in the Bonhomme Richard’s lower vehicle storage area at 8:30 AM local time, with San Diego Fire-Rescue Department reporting that Federal Fire requested support around 9 AM local time. The second alarm was called at 9:09 AM, and the third alarm at 9:51 AM.
17 sailors and four civilian firefighters have been hospitalized for non-life-threatening injuries. As of 10:24 PM local time, 13 sailors and two Federal Fire firefighters remain hospitalized in stable condition. All of the approximately 160 sailors aboard the ship have been accounted for, according to a statement by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday.
In a press conference held at 6:30 PM local time, Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck stated that all crew members on board have been evacuated, and that there is no ordnance on board the ship. He described the firefighting teams as doing a “magnificent job” and that they were “fighting their ship and saving their ship”. He stated that 1,000,000 gallons of fuel oil are on the ship, but they are “well below” any heat sources.
A shelter in place order has been issued for all non-first responding personnel in an 1800 yard area around the USS Bonhomme Richard, and the Coast Guard has similarly established a 1 nautical mile safety zone around the fire. According to Rear Admiral Sobeck, the order was given to ensure the security and safety of those fighting the fire. Destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell have been towed to piers further away from the fire, with USS Fitzgerald being moved at 1:00 PM local time and USS Russell 30 minutes after that.
The fire has since spread to the ship’s island and bridge, with the forward island and mast having partially collapsed under the heat of the fire. There are unconfirmed reports that the flight deck has collapsed as well. Two MH-60S Seahawks of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 have joined the firefighting efforts, using water buckets to douse the flames on the island.
USS Bonhomme Richard had just completed a series of upgrades worth $250 million to support F-35B operations. Given the fire’s initial location at the waterline and its subsequent spread, the feasibility of repairing Bonhomme Richard seems extremely questionable. Rear Admiral Sobeck stated that “we are absolutely going to make her sail again” at the press conference, but that was prior to the spread of the fire to the island and flight deck.
The cause of the fire is now under investigation. We will continue to monitor this story and update.
As of 5.30 PM (EST) 13 July, the fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard continues to burn with the bridge and upper superstructures now consumed by the fire. Hotspots of up to 1,000 degrees (F) have been reported but the fire has not yet reached the estimated 1 million gallons of fuel that are said to be aboard the vessel.
“The superstructure and the upper decks continue to burn and have sustained damage,” Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck said at 11 AM (PST). “The forward mast has collapsed, and the ship is listing. However… we’re keeping a good balance.”
It has been confirmed that 57 personnel have been injured by the fire with five still being treated. As was initially feared, it has also been confirmed that the USS Bonhomme Richard’s onboard fire suppression had been turned off as part of the ship’s maintenance work.
As more than 400 sailors have boarded the stricken ship to help fight the fire it was also confirmed by Sobeck that the fire began in a cargo hold.
As of 11 AM (EST), 14 July, the efforts to control the fire continue and the fate of the vessel hands in the balance. The US Navy has confirmed that 59 people – 36 sailors and 23 civilians – have been treated for minor injuries, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Aerial photographs, taken from one of the MH-60S Seahawks assisting efforts to fight the fire, show that in several places the deck has melted and collapsed. The repercussions of the temporary or potentially permanent loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard to the US Navy’s strategic planning have now come sharply into focus.
As of 3 PM (EST), 15th July, the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard continues to burn but US Navy representatives have confirmed that 63 personnel, 40 sailors and 23 civilians, have been treated for minor injuries but the super structure has been cooled by water drops, over 1,500 of which have been made by Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3. It appears that the risk of the fire reaching the fuel tanks, which hold a reported 1 million gallons of water, has been averted.
At 12 AM (PST), 16 July, the US Navy’s Naval Surface Forces advised that the USS Bonhomme Richard had begun to list towards its pier as the vessel’s stability at its moorings was likely impacted by the Free Surface Effect caused by the large volume of water now onboard. As a result fire fighting crews were evacuated and the decision was taken to wait to see how the vessel settled before continuing operations.
Some photographs, reportedly taken onboard the stricken vessel, have been shared online showing some of the extent of the damage:
As of 2PM (PST), 16 July, the fires aboard USS Bonhomme Richard have been extinguished. Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck, Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Three, confirmed all known fires aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship were out with fire teams continuing to investigate every accessible space to verify this. Sobeck described this process as a “painstaking evolution… to make sure there are no hotspots.”
Regarding the cause of the fire he said in a statement that the US Navy “cannot make any conclusions, until the investigation is complete.” The cause of the fire and the fate of the vessel remains to be seen.
Additional Reporting – Matthew Moss