Thirty-four sailors and 23 civilians have been treated for minor injuries, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, from the fire aboard the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard which began Sunday morning, the Navy said.
Five sailors remain in the hospital and are in stable condition, Naval Surface Forces for the Pacific Fleet tweeted on Monday.
Ten sailors were released from the hospital Sunday night as Navy and federal firefighters worked around the clock to put out the blaze.
It is still unclear what caused the fire, which began in the ship’s lower vehicle storage area around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, said Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3.
The 844-foot warship was engulfed in massive pillars of smoke that could be seen throughout the San Diego area on Sunday. Throughout Sunday night and into Monday morning, helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Three dropped buckets of water on the ship.
As of 3:30 a.m. PST, firefighting teams continue operations on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) in addition to aerial firefighting operations that commenced via helicopter water bucket at 10:30 p.m. PST with two helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron THREE. pic.twitter.com/WghSnajEZf
— Naval Surface Forces (@SurfaceWarriors) July 13, 2020
Containing the fire will be “a long fight,” Sobeck said. Still, the admiral stated that the ship could “absolutely” be saved.
“We’re absolutely going to make sure it sails again,” Sobeck told reporters early Sunday evening. “Right now we’re fighting the fire and then we’ll work on understanding what exactly happened with the fire and where it went, make sure she sails as best as possible … she was in a stage of repair anyway, so we’ll get right back at it once we get this thing contained.”
Meanwhile, federal and Navy firefighters took turns battling the blaze as they worked to “find the seat of the fire and extinguish it,” said Federal Fire San Diego Division Chief Rob Bondurant around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Tug boats also sprayed water on the ship from the bay, while all ships in port were directed to assist with the effort, the Navy said.
Sobeck told reporters there was no ordnance aboard the ship at the time of the fire, and that the blaze had been directed away from the million or so gallons of fuel in the ship’s fuel tanks.
There was initially some confusion due to a loud explosion that rang out across the bay shortly after the fire began, but Sobeck said it was likely due to a backdraft from over-pressurization as the ship compartments heated up.
At the time, the admiral said that the blaze was a Class A fire, meaning there were no toxic materials burning. Instead, it was an “ashy” fire, fueled by “normal things you’d find in a compartment” such as office equipment and clothing, he said.
The fire was still burning as of Monday morning, and its effects were being felt throughout the city.
The Coast Guard had established a one nautical mile safety zone around the Bonhomme Richard, and the National Weather Service warned residents that they would probably smell acrid smoke in the air from the blaze.
The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District said smoke concentrations “may reach unhealthy levels” across the city and recommended that residents keep their windows shut.
On Monday morning, Naval Base San Diego warned of “a number of scams asking for financial donations” in support of Bonhomme Richard sailors.
“NBSD is not taking donations of items for the USS Bonhomme Richard at this time,” the base tweeted. “Do not bring donations to the base.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday called the incident “a terrible tragedy.”
“We are grateful for the quick and immediate response of local, base, and shipboard firefighters aboard USS Bonhomme Richard,” he said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with our BHR Sailors, their families, and our emergency responders who continue to fight the fire. Godspeed.”
The ship's last deployment was in 2018, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The original Bonhomme Richard was a frigate under the command of John Paul Jones, one of the founders of the U.S. Navy. In 1779, during the Revolutionary War, Jones engaged a British ship, the HMS Serapis, off the coast of England.
“Richard was blasted in the initial broadside the two ships exchanged, losing much of her firepower and many of her gunners,” according to the Navy. “Captain Richard Pearson, commanding Serapis, called out to Jones, asking if he surrendered. Jones' reply: 'I have not yet begun to fight!'”
Eventually, the Bonhomme Richard sunk, and Jones was forced to transfer to the Serapis, the Navy wrote. Jones is buried in the crypt of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.