Navy inquiry cites complacency in sub fire
Report says firefighters not fully prepared, Congressional hearing may follow
By David Sharp and Jennifer McDermott
The Associated Press
PORTLAND, Maine — Shipyard firefighters and Navy crews participated in 54 fire drills over a three-year period but nothing prepared them for an arson that swept through a submarine and burned for hours on end, exhausting firefighters and crippling a $900 million nuclear submarine.
Navy investigators concluded that firefighters needed to spend more time preparing for a worst-case scenario after the May 2012 fire aboard the USS Miami at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
The Navy says it has learned lessons from the Miami fire.
"We will continue to apply best response practices into shipyard fire emergency plans," Lt. Timothy Hawkins, a Navy spokesman, said from the Pentagon.
Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request indicated that the Navy was concerned that complacency had set in during shipyard repairs and that shipyard firefighters weren't as prepared as they needed to be.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday he wants to hold a congressional hearing on firefighting techniques and training to determine whether Congress should allocate additional funding.
Investigators said shipyard workers squandered precious minutes after the fire was set by delaying a fire alarm and looking in the wrong place for the fire.
"Complacency had set in, based on the infrequency of shipyard fires and relative success of fire prevention measures," investigators wrote. "Also, there was an assumption that the proximity to far more assets, especially federal firefighters, reduced the likelihood of a fire not being quickly contained. This organizational reluctance to prepare for a fire of this scale should serve as a wake-up call — large fires can and do happen in industrial environments."
It took 12 hours and the efforts of more than 100 firefighters to save the Groton, Connecticut-based Miami after a worker who wanted to go home early set a fire that quickly spread.
The Navy launched a series of investigations that led to recommendations, including the installation of temporary automatic fire detection systems while vessels are being repaired or overhauled. It issued a new fire safety and prevention manual.
A report released by U.S. Fleet Forces Command indicated just how dire the situation became aboard the Los Angeles-class submarine, which was in dry dock while undergoing a 20-month overhaul in Kittery, Maine: At one point, officials discussed abandoning their firefighting efforts and flooding the dry dock when it appeared the submarine might be lost.
The fire severely damaged living quarters, the command and control center and a torpedo room, but it did not reach the nuclear propulsion components.
Seven people were injured dousing the flames.
The Navy originally wanted to return the submarine to service but ultimately decided to scrap it after the repair bill hit $700 million.
Investigators said shipyard firefighters were unfamiliar with the submarine's layout and that there was no requirement for certification to battle a fire in a shipboard environment — or even to conduct a walk-through to familiarize themselves with the sub.
But Brian Tapley, who was the shipyard fire chief at the time, disputed any suggestion that the firefighters were unfamiliar with Miami. Firefighters conducted monthly walk-throughs, practiced dragging hoses through submarines and never flunked a drill, he said.
He said he had the utmost respect for firefighters who battled searing heat from a fire that was fueled by oxygen entering through holes cut in the submarine.
"They climbed into the belly of an inferno," said Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, a union at the shipyard. "Every one of them is a hero."
The Navy also said it was to blame for failing to incorporate lessons learned from past fires into training and for not making the roles for Navy authorities clear.
The Fleet Forces report included 99 recommendations — virtually all of which were redacted because they were not final decisions, Hawkins said.
Blumenthal said he was disappointed the recommendations weren't made public, and he plans to ask the Navy for them.
"The report documents a very compelling need for better training and more expert firefighters that can help stop such catastrophic fires on submarines," the Connecticut Democrat said.
The recommendations apply to ships that are being repaired or overhauled. The report notes that the vessels are more vulnerable in that setting because damage-control equipment is removed or inoperable; most of the crew is away; and temporary fire-control equipment is less familiar to crew.
McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.