11 of 14 decks damaged in Navy ship fire, officials say

A Navy memo stated that some areas of the ship were completed gutted during the four-day blaze

Andrew Dyer
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — After burning more than four days, the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard has fire, smoke and water damage on 11 of its 14 decks. Some decks are warped and bulging and, in some spaces, completely gutted, according to an email the Navy's top admiral sent to other leaders Wednesday.

The email by Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, describes the damage to the warship and the challenges firefighters and sailors encountered battling the blaze for more than 100 hours. Gilday toured the ship during a visit to Naval Base San Diego Friday.

Navy officials say 11 out of the 14 decks on the USS Bonhomme Richard were damaged in the blaze that burned for four days starting on July 12.
Navy officials say 11 out of the 14 decks on the USS Bonhomme Richard were damaged in the blaze that burned for four days starting on July 12. (Photo/Nelvin C. Cepeda, The San Diego Union-Tribune)

"With the flight deck as a reference, I walked sections of the ship 5 levels below and had the opportunity to examine the superstructure," Gilday wrote. "The island is nearly gutted, as are sections of some of the decks below; some perhaps, nearly encompassing the 844 ft length and 106 ft beam of the ship," he wrote.

The island houses the ship's bridge and air traffic control tower. Online photos showed its aluminum roof melted through in places.

"Sections of the flight deck are warped/bulging. The fire started in the lower vehicle storage area — 6 decks below the flight deck and near the middle of the ship — spreading aft, forward, and up," Gilday wrote.

The blaze began around 8:30 a.m. July 12. It wasn't declared extinguished until early in the afternoon July 16.

During the first two days of the inferno, noxious smoke billowed out of the vessel and affected air quality throughout the region, from North County to Tijuana. It was especially prevalent in areas closest to the base, such as Barrio Logan and National City.

Temperatures inside the ship where the fire was most intense peaked around 1,200 degrees F, Gilday said Friday. These high temperatures hindered firefighting efforts while helicopters and tugboats continuously dumped and sprayed water onto the hull and flight deck to cool the inside of the ship so fire teams could access the fires.

The Navy in a separate announcement Wednesday said National Steel and Shipbuilding Company — commonly called "NASSCO" — was awarded a $10 million contract to clean up the fire-ravaged ship. The contract provides money for firefighting support, removing water from the ship and safety, in addition to cleanup.

It isn't a new contract, but an addendum to the nearly $250 million contract NASSCO received in 2018 to overhaul and modernize the Bonhomme Richard so that it could deploy the Marine Corps' version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B.

That work was near completion at the time of the blaze. Navy officials said Friday they were unsure if that work will continue.

The cause of the blaze is still not known. Three concurrent investigations are planned, Gilday said Friday.


©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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