At least 21 people were injured when a fire and an explosion broke out Sunday on a U.S. Navy warship that was docked in San Diego, causing heavy damage and posing unique hazards for firefighters, officials said.
The ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, had been docked at the U.S. naval base when the fire was reported at 8:30 a.m., the Navy said.
About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time, according to the Navy, which said that the injuries were not life-threatening and that all crew members had been accounted for.
But the fate of the vessel was less clear.
Fire Chief Colin Stowell of San Diego told CNN that the fire could burn for several days, “down to the waterline.”
It was not immediately clear what had caused the fire.
A spokeswoman for San Diego Fire-Rescue said later Sunday that Stowell was not available for further interviews and referred questions to the Navy, which did not say how the fire had started.
The Bonhomme Richard is one of eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships and can carry more than 1,000 sailors, according to the Navy. Its cost has been estimated at $761 million by the Federation of American Scientists.
Two other warships that had been docked nearby were moved to other piers as a precaution, the Navy said.
The Bonhomme Richard was docked at the base in San Diego for scheduled maintenance between deployments, said Krishna Jackson, a Navy spokeswoman.
The ship has light arms but would not normally have large explosive munitions, such as airdropped bombs, on board while docked, Jackson said.
The sailors assigned to it were staying in Navy or private housing on shore and were not on board when the fire started, she said.
A “duty section” of sailors trained to fight fires was on board when the fire started, she said, and they were the first to respond.
Eric A. Dukat, a retired U.S. Navy commander who is now an associate professor in the College of Maritime Operational Warfare at the U.S. Naval War College, said sailors are thoroughly equipped to handle fires on ships.
“Everyone gets trained to be a firefighter, flooding stopper — all the damage control — and that’s because when you’re out at sea, there’s nobody coming to you,” he said.
Dukat, who worked as a damage control assistant aboard the USS Wasp, said fires on ships “are not like a house fire” and present a unique hazard because of the rising heat inside the vessel and the intense steam that is produced when water is used.
“Imagine a fire inside of a ship, just imagine the inside of your oven,” he said.
In 1967, a fire on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal killed more than 130 sailors after a rocket accidentally fired on the flight deck and ignited several explosions. The episode has been used as a lesson on how to tackle safety procedures aboard Navy vessels, Dukat said.
John Liddle, a lieutenant commander who retired from the Navy last year after 20 years of service, said in an interview Sunday that fighting a fire while a ship is in port can be harder because not all crew members are available and safety standards are different when the vessel is not at sea.
“The things you would normally do to keep a fire contained, you can’t do them,” he said.
Liddle was second-in-command of the USS Hue City when a fire was sparked onboard hundreds of miles off the coast of Bermuda in April 2014.
The fire on his ship was sparked by rags that sailors had stored in “basically a chimney,” he said. The Navy relieved him of his duties after an investigation into the fire.
“Even in a really horrible, awful, wartime fire, you’re still going to be able to keep the ship afloat,” Liddle said. “Where the problem really comes, where a ship is lost for good, is normally actually because of the water.”
“You’re putting so much water into it in one place or another that all of a sudden it’s not buoyant in the same way that it was designed to be,” he said.
The Bonhomme Richard is outfitted to carry landing craft to transport equipment and troops as well as landing boats. It is 847 feet long and has a crew of 102 officers and just over 1,000 sailors.
The ship was commissioned on Aug. 15, 1998, and is the third Navy warship to bear the name Bonhomme Richard.
The first was a 900-ton merchant vessel fitted with 40 guns and placed under the command of Capt. John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War. Jones named the ship after the French translation of the pen name Benjamin Franklin used as the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
The original Bonhomme Richard was the first Navy vessel to defeat an enemy ship in combat, the HMS Serapis, in 1779. The present-day USS Bonhomme Richard has participated in numerous operations, including Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Anaconda and Operation Iraqi Freedom.