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Future Of USS Bonhomme Richard Still Uncertain As Navy Assesses Damage

The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard sits pier side at Naval Base...

Credit: U.S. Navy

Above: The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard sits pier side at Naval Base San Diego, July 16, 2020.

UPDATE: 3:05 p.m., July 17, 2020:

The fate of the USS Bonhomme Richard, charred and crippled following a four-day fire that tore through the warship at Naval Base San Diego, will remain a question mark as the military conducts an intensive examination into whether the vessel can — or should — be repaired, a high- ranking Navy official said Friday.

"There is obviously a lot of damage to the ship," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters during an afternoon news conference. "There is structural damage to the ship and mechanical damage to the ship (that) we need to assess in much more detail before we make a final determination as to the next steps."

While asserting his belief that the vessel could return to service, Gilday nonetheless said he was "not going to make any predictions" about its future "until we gather all the facts" and complete all investigations and deliberations regarding whether to repair it or retire it.

"I am 100% confident that our defense industry can put this ship back to sea," he said. "But, having said that, the question is: Should we make that investment on a 22-year-old ship?"

As Navy leaders work to determine what sparked the explosive blaze aboard the 27,565-ton amphibious assault ship last weekend and review the military-civilian effort that finally extinguished the inferno on Thursday, they also will re-evaluate the preparedness of their ranks for such fiery crises, Gilday said.

The admiral said he had no precise timeline for completion of those processes.

As the conflagration raged early in the week, sending plumes of acrid smoke over the harbor and much of the city, naval fleet commanders put out a service-wide directive "to ensure that our equipment is ready, that our people are well trained and our procedures are rehearsed so we can all learn from this tragedy," Gilday said.

The admiral lauded the "heroic" efforts the roughly 400 sailors from 16 San Diego-based ships and civilian firefighters from surrounding cities who braved explosions and temperatures up to about 1,200 degrees while laboring to save the burning ship.

"It's truly been an all-hands effort, and we are grateful," Gilday said.

He also praised the commander of the Bonhomme Richard, Capt. G. Scott Thoroman, who "was really looking at safety first."

"He needed to save the ship, (but) he needed to balance that with the safety of the firefighters," Gilday said. "And so there were times when he had to back those firefighters off the ship."

Among the extreme hazards necessitating such precautions were a series of explosions that rocked the ship, one that could be heard 13 miles away, according to Gilday.

"So I think that the situation was very tenuous," the admiral said. "I think that the commanding officer made some very sound decisions in terms of how to attack the fire very deliberately."

A total of 40 sailors and 23 civilian firefighters suffered various minor injuries, mostly heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, while taking part in the battle to defeat the blaze, Navy officials said.

The fire erupted shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday in a part of the vessel where cardboard and Tri wall boxes are kept. There were 160 sailors and officers aboard the ship at the time, Navy spokesman Brian O'Rourke said.

Because the vessel was undergoing maintenance work when the fire erupted, its built-in flame-suppression system was inoperative, according to base officials.

After about 90 minutes, authorities decided to remove all firefighters from the ship for safety reasons and go after the blaze by remote means, including helicopters and fire boats surrounding it on the bay.

About two hours after the fire began, a blast of unknown origin shook the vessel and "threw several firefighters off their feet," the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department reported.

The inferno eventually sent below-deck temperatures as high as 1,200 degrees and left the ship listing due to the amount of water it had taken on from the firefighting efforts, Navy officials said.

About four hours after the Bonhomme Richard began burning, the Navy moved the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell to berths farther away from the fire, according to Mike Raney, deputy public affairs officer with the Naval Surface Force.

Navy officials initially thought the fire could be controlled as early as Sunday night, according to Gilday, who said he believed several major impediments, including the explosions and strong winds off the bay, ultimately prevented that outcome.

"And this fire probably couldn't have been in a worse point on the ship, in terms of its source, (which) allowed it to spread up elevator shafts, as an example, up exhaust stacks, as an example, and take that fire up into the superstructure," he told reporters during Friday afternoon's briefing at Naval Base San Diego.

Late Wednesday night, authorities again evacuated all personnel from the ship "out of an abundance of caution" because it had begun to shift to one side, Navy officials said. By 6 a.m. Thursday, the vessel had stabilized, and firefighters reboarded to continue attacking the blaze.

Over the course of the all-out, multi-agency firefighting operation, three helicopter squadrons conducted more than 1,500 water-bucket drops, helping cool its superstructure and flight deck, while tugboats blasted the smoking warship with water cannons.

Among the precautions in the area of the blaze instituted by the U.S. Coast Guard were a one-nautical-mile safety zone on the waters surrounding the ship and up to 3,000 feet in the air above it. Users of neighboring marinas were being advised to "utilize protective safety measures" as well, according to the agency.

The Navy, for its part, will "work together with regulators, (and the) county and state in protecting our environment and preparing to address the community's concerns as we move forward to the next phase," USN Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told news crews earlier this week.

The Bonhomme Richard is the third warship in U.S. naval history to bear the name, which means "Good Man Richard" in French and honors Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac."

The vessel has been homeported at Naval Base San Diego since the spring of 2018, when it returned from a six-year port switch to Sasebo, Japan, while becoming the command ship for Navy Expeditionary Strike Group Seven.

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