The ship that burned for days in San Diego this week is stable enough to go undergo repairs, but the Navy must decide whether it should invest the time and money to save a decades-old vessel, the service’s top officer said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the Navy is launching three investigations into the ship fire aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. Gilday went out to California on Friday to visit the ship that caught fire Sunday at Naval Base San Diego.
“I am 100% confident that our defense industry can put the ship back to sea,” he told reporters. “Having said that, the question is, should we make that investment in a 22-year-old ship? And I’m not going to make any predictions until we take a look at all the facts and … we can make reasoned recommendations up the chain of command.”
Gilday said he walked through the Bonhomme Richard to assess the damage, which he called extensive. It includes electrical, structural and mechanical damage.
Of the three investigations, Naval Sea Systems Command will look at safety issues. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service will examine any possible malfeasance, he said, and a command investigation will look at whether procedures were in place and followed.
“Make no mistake, we will follow the facts of what happened here, be honest with ourselves and we’ll get after it as a Navy,” Gilday said. “My intention is for the investigations to be made available to the public when they are completed.”
In the wake of the fire, ships across the fleet have already been ordered to be sure training and equipment are in place to fight similar fires. Gilday said the service will also look at how it mans ships undergoing maintenance to ensure they have enough people onboard to deal with crises.
“Given the fact that the ship is at a certain point in maintenance and certain equipment could’ve been inoperable in terms of firefighting equipment, we need to go through this, catalog it all and get an understanding of whether or not we have it right,” the CNO said. “And if not, how do we quickly adjust across the fleet to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
About 85 sailors were living on the Bonhomme Richard when the fire broke out, and roughly 165 of the ship’s 1,000-person crew were onboard at the time.
Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, Expeditionary Strike Group 3’s commander, said this week that the amphib’s fire suppression system was not on when the fire started. Naval Surface Force Pacific officials have not responded to questions about whether that’s standard practice when ships are undergoing maintenance.
The CNO praised the hundreds of firefighters who fought heroically day and night to extinguish the blaze, which started in a lower cargo hold and quickly spread throughout the vessel. At times, the temperature on the ship soared as high as 1,200 degrees.
One aviation boatswain’s mate went back into the ship to fight the fire at least seven times.
“She was very proud of what she did and the teamwork that was involved with these small teams that were going in to fight the fire,” Gilday said. “… [It’s] an environment where you can really only see two feet in front of you. There was no lighting; it was deep, heavy smoke.
“If anybody has any doubts about this generation of sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines,” he added, “at least to me, it should be quickly put to rest by the heroic, courageous actions of those sailors and the federal firefighters over the past five days.”
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