An American Warship Has Been on Fire for 48 Hours

The 'USS Bonhomme Richard' has been burning for two days and Navy officials aren’t sure what caused the devastating fire.
15 July 2020, 5:37am
Image: U.S. Navy

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

An American warship has been on fire for more than 48 hours at Naval Base San Diego in California. The USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire at 8:30 am on Sunday morning and the fire is still burning through the ship, despite the Navy and local firefighter’s best efforts to contain the blaze.

As of this writing, the fire is still burning and the ship, collapsing under the weight of the blaze and the water being used to fight it, is tilting to one side.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but Sailors aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard have reported that it began in a large storage area used for storing trucks and amphibious assault vehicles for Marines. During a press conference, Rear Admiral Philip E. Sobeck said that the ship’s sailors believed heavy-duty cardboard boxes and other storage materials fueled the blaze and helped it spread.

The USS Bonhomme Richard is a Wasp-_class amphibious assault ship. _Wasp_-class ships look like miniature aircraft carriers, and though aircraft launch from them, they’re primarily used to make amphibious assaults. A ship like the _USS Bonhomme Richard can come right up to shore and deploy Marines and ground vehicles.

The ship has a crew size of around 1,000, but only 160 Sailors were present when the fire started. According to the Navy, 36 Sailors and 23 civilians have been injured in the fire but no one has died. Most of the injuries are due to heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Most have recovered after brief stays in a local hospital. As of this writing, the Navy has said that 17 sailors and four civilians are still recovering from non-life threatening injuries related to the fire.

The Navy is hopeful that the ship is salvageable, but as the hours tick by and the fire continues, that’s looking like a distant possibility. The ship’s forward mast has collapsed and Navy officials are describing an inferno inside where temperatures are reaching as high as 1,000 degrees fahrenheit.

Helicopters are constantly dumping water onto the ship and several smaller ships and fire trucks continue to bombard the USS Bonhomme Richard in hopes of starting the fire. As the ship has taken on more water, it’s begun to tilt.

As the ship burns, it puts smoke into the air and debris into the ocean. “As we continue to fight the fire we remain cognizant of environmental concerns regarding water and air quality,” Rear Adm.Sobeck told reporters during a press conference on Monday. The city of San Diego has issued a warning about air quality in the area.

Fire on a ship is a nightmare for the Navy, which trains every sailor for the possibility of an inferno. “If every Marine is a rifleman, every Sailor is a fireman,” former Sailor Chris Cummings, who served on the USS Yorktown, told VICE over the phone. “[Fire training] is a part of bootcamp. You start doing fire watches in your first week of bootcamp.”

Cummings said that a fire at sea is terrifying because, if it isn’t contained, help could be days away. The USS Bonhomme Richard was docked at San Diego Naval Base, but that comes with its own set of problems. During routine repairs and refueling, safety features are routinely disabled on Navy vessels. The _USS Bonhomme Richard’_s halon fire suppression system had been removed from the ship for repair at the time of the fire.

Cummings said that removing or disabling the fire suppression system while a ship is docked for repairs or maintenance is routine. A halon suppression system works by releasing an inert gas into a contained space to deprive a fire of oxygen. The system is great at extinguishing fires, but would also kill any Sailor left in the affected area. “If you survive halon, you wish you wouldn’t,” Cummings said. “It’s apparently that painful.” A similar fire suppression system killed 20 Sailors on a Russian Nuclear submarine in 2008.

More than 48 hours later, the USS Bonhomme Richard is still on fire. “I’m shocked the fire is still going,” Cummings said. “I can’t imagine what is still burning that they haven’t been able to put out.”