Navy choppers support hundreds of sailors fighting raging ship fire for 2nd day

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SAN DIEGO — Three Naval helicopters dropped water from above dozens of times on the fire raging on the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Monday, and authorities revealed that the blaze caused mostly minor injuries to 57 sailors and civilians but sent five people to the hospital.

Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said during a Monday morning news conference that naval forces are “doing everything they can” to save the ship, which has sustained considerable
superstructure damage.

Five sailors remained hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries as of Monday morning and 57 personnel — both sailors and federal firefighters — had been treated for minor injuries such as heat exhaustion or smoke inhalation, Sobeck said.

The blaze broke out some time before 9 a.m. Sunday and flames spread through the vessel rapidly, forcing crews to leave the ship and fight the fire from its exterior within about two hours.

Approximately 160 sailors were aboard the San Diego-based ship at the time of the fire, according to a tweet from Naval Surface Forces. The entire crew was evacuated from the ship, which had been undergoing maintenance, and all were accounted for, the Navy said.

In an evening news conference Sunday, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said the fire was originally reported in the lower vehicle storage area of the ship. Navy and federal firefighters had to clear out compartment spaces in order “to close in the center of the fire,” Sobeck said.

“Sailors across this waterfront are absolutely doing a magnificent job to save the USS Bonhomme Richard,” he said. “They are fighting their ship and they are saving their ship. The resiliency of our sailors and the team around them, we’re seeing just incredible results.”

Sailors stationed near the fire who weren’t directly involved in the emergency response were directed to shelter-in-place “until further notice,” base officials tweeted after 5 p.m. Sunday.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer thanked the “brave sailors and rescue crews.”

“We are here for the sailors and civilians affected by the ship fire at Naval Base San Diego,” Faulconer said Sunday. “@SDFD and other first responders continue to lend support. All of the crew is off the USS Bonhomme Richard and accounted for.”

There was an explosion on the ship just before 11 a.m., according to SDPD, but no firefighters were in the immediate area and no one was hurt by the blast.

“What we cannot ascertain is exactly what that explosion was caused from,” Sobeck said, adding initial reports point to a “backdraft of an overpressurization.”

“As the compartment started heating up, that caused a pressurization and that’s sort of what caused that explosion,” he said. “Certainly under due caution, we evacuated, reset the perimeter and then go back and fight the fire.”

SDFD was instructed to exit the pier before noon Sunday, the department said, and was replaced by the federal crews.

With heavy smoke visible in the area, National City officials urged nearby residents to take precautions to limit potential health impacts, including staying indoors and limiting outdoor activities. The stench could be smelled across the city of San Diego Sunday evening and Monday morning.

The Bonhomme Richard is an amphibious assault ship homeported in San Diego. It is the third warship in the U.S. Navy’s history to bear the name, which means Good Man Richard in French and honors Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The first Bonhomme Richard was a warship in the Continental Navy. She was originally a merchant ship built in France for the French East India Company in 1765. She was placed at the disposal of John Paul Jones on in February 1779 by King Louis XVI of France as a result of a loan to the United States by French shipping magnate Jacques-Donatien Le Ray.

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