A fire was burning over a day after it started on Sunday on the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) while moored pierside at Naval Base San Diego.
Navy personnel first called the fire on the morning of July 12 while the ship is undergoing a standard maintenance availability that began in 2018. The ship normally has a crew of 1,000 but while undergoing maintenance only 160 sailors were aboard at the time.
As of Monday afternoon, 54 personnel were taken to hospitals to treat minor injuries related to the fire, with five stable patients still in the hospital for observation.
During a press conference on Monday, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, told reporters the Navy got the first report of fire from the lower V of the ship.
“That’s basically where you store all the tanks and the other things, the Marine Corps equipment. If you open the stern gate in the back of the ship…that’s kind of where we believe, above that is where we believe things started,” Sobeck said.
Sobeck added the space was being used as a storage area during maintenance and that is what appears to have first ignited.
By Sunday afternoon, the Navy moved nearby ships the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and then the USS Russel (DDG-59) to berths at a pier further away from the fire.
The Navy is fighting the fire from boats, firefighters on board, and using Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Three to drop water from above.
Sobeck said as of Monday afternoon “the superstructure and the upper decks continue to burn and have sustained damage. The forward mast has collapsed.”
He admitted the ship is listing, but that is due to the water added to fight the fire and they are balancing how much water to use to fight the fire while keeping the floating ship stable.
“There’s obviously burn damage all the way through the stem of the ship. And we are assessing that as we kind of go through each compartment and figure out exactly what the extent is,” Sobeck added.
When asked if the ship can be saved, Sobeck said, “Right now we’re doing everything we can to do just that…once we get the fire out, which is the priority, then we make that assessment.”
The fire has not reached engineering spaces and the Navy estimates there are at least two decks between the heat source and the fuel. Sobeck said the firefighting effort has been focused on maintaining a buffer between the heat source and the fuel.
He said over 400 sailors have been on board the ship over the past day to fight the fire and “make every effort to save that ship.”
When asked if it is realistic possibility for the fire to reach the fuel,he said “we go after it and we plan for the worst case all the time, we train to it, and we’re going to make sure we don’t get there.”
Sobeck described the firefighting challenges as “a balance, it’s really a dance. The fire as it continues to go, you’ve got to assess, again, stability within the compartments you’re going through, understand the heat source, again temperature ranging as high as 1,000 degrees.”
LHD-6 is the flagship from Expeditionary Strike Group Three and was built by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ [HII] Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. It was delivered and commissioned in 1998.
LHDs are capable of basing Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL), Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL), and vertical take-off tilt rotor and rotary wing aircraft. They generally provide the Marine Corps with ship-to shore transportation by aircraft and landing craft via the well deck.
The Navy has eight Wasp-class LHDs that carry AV-8B Harriers, F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, helicopter and other vertical lift aircraft. The service is gradually replacing them with new America-class LHA-6 ships, with a total of four planned.
If the ship is ultimately lost and needs to be replaced by a new LHA, the cost could be in the billions. According to Navy fiscal year 2021 budget request documents, the service plans to procure LHA-9 in FY ’23 at a cost of about $3.9 billion, before including advance procurement funds in previous years.
The LHA-6 class vessels are also built by HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding.