Navy: Origin of USS Bonhomme Richard fire still unknown

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Firefighting boats spray water onto the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard as smoke rises from a fire onboard the ship at Naval Base San Diego, as seen from Coronado, California. July 12, 2020.

Firefighting boats spray water onto the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard as smoke rises from a fire onboard the ship at Naval Base San Diego, as seen from Coronado, California. July 12, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

The origin of a fire that injured 17 sailors and four civilians aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard on Sunday is still unknown, the Navy said in a press release Sunday evening.

The fire broke out around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday as the Bonhomme Richard was docked pier side at Naval Base San Diego and undergoing maintenance, the Navy said. 160 sailors out of the amphibious assault’s total crew of 1,000 were aboard the ship at the time.

The Navy's top spokesman, Rear Adm. Charles Brown, told Reuters that the injured sailors had mostly sustained smoke inhalation and minor burns.

Though it is still unclear where the fire started, the ship was soon engulfed in massive pillars of smoke that were caught on helicopter footage and could be seen throughout the San Diego.

Local, base and shipboard firefighting teams responded to the fire as sailors were evacuated from the ship. By 12:15 all the sailors were ashore and accounted for, but the fire raged on.

At around that point, the Navy said 11 sailors were transferred to a local hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Meanwhile, other Navy ships docked nearby were pulled away.

At approximately 1:00 p.m. local time, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald shifted berths to a pier further away from the fire. Another destroyer, USS Russell moved approximately 30 minutes later.

The USS Fitzgerald had only recently returned to San Diego after leaving a Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi, where the ship had spent nearly three years under repair after a collision off the coast of Japan which seven sailors and injured several others.

By 1:30 p.m. local time, the number of injured had gone up to 18, all with minor injuries. An hour after that, the number changed again to 17 sailors and four civilians. A Navy spokesperson told the San Diego Union-Tribune that it was unknown whether those sailors were involved in firefighting efforts.

Meanwhile, all inport ships were directed to help out with the effort, the Navy said, some by providing firefighting teams.

“Federal Fire is rotating their crews aboard the ship with Navy firefighting crews from the waterfront to fight the fire in order to find the seat of the fire and extinguish it,” said Federal Fire San Diego Division Chief Rob Bondurant said at around 4:00 p.m. local time. “Currently there are two firefighting teams fighting the fire aboard the ship.”

Naval Surface Forces said federal firefighters led the effort, while Navy tugs helped from the bay. As plumes of smoke rose over the city, residents were urged to stay inside due to potential health effects.

Helicopter footage of the USS Bonhomme Richard showed massive plumes of smoke pouring out of the ship from multiple places.

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. According to the Navy:

Richard was blasted in the initial broadside the two ships exchanged, losing much of her firepower and many of her gunners. Captain Richard Pearson, commanding Serapis, called out to Jones, asking if he surrendered. Jones' reply: "I have not yet begun to fight!"

Eventually, the 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.