Navy Officials Fear USS Bonhomme Richard Fire Has Damaged It Beyond Repair

Amphibious assault ship one of the few in U.S. fleet that can launch F-35 operations

WASHINGTON—The fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard showed no sign of abating Monday, raising fears that one of the few U.S. Navy ships that can operate like a mini aircraft carrier is damaged beyond repair.

The Navy is “doing everything we can do” to save the ship, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said at a press conference in San Diego on Monday, a day after the fire broke out. But he said the vessel’s mast had collapsed and that there was “burn damage all the way through the skin of the ship.”

Navy officials said it could be days before the fire is contained, and pictures and video Monday captured plumes of smoke billowing from the ship into San Diego’s sunny skies. Some local officials encouraged residents to stay inside, amid fears about the effect of the fire on air quality around the San Diego area.

The ship, named for the French translation of Benjamin Franklin’s nom de plume “Poor Richard,” is among a handful of amphibious assault ships reconfigured to enable the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to take off from its deck. That capability allows it to be used for offensive air operations. It conducted its first missions with F-35s aboard in 2018.

Several sailors were being treated for a variety of injuries after a fire broke out on a ship at the U.S. Naval base in San Diego, according to the San Diego

“You are losing one of the few platforms that you could use to fill in for a carrier in the Middle East when our attention is focused on the Pacific,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The ship was docked at a naval base in San Diego undergoing maintenance when the fire was discovered Sunday around 8:30 a.m. PDT after sailors reported hearing an explosion. There was no work under way at the site of the fire’s origin, which was a staging area for supplies like drywall, scaffolding and rags, Adm. Sobeck said Monday. That area also held equipment used by Marines who serve on the ship.

More than 400 sailors, along with federal firefighters, have been combating the blaze from aboard the ship and from the air. In all, 34 sailors and 23 civilians had been injured by the fire, many for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, Navy officials said. By Monday evening, none remained in the hospital. The ship is designed to carry as many as 1,000 sailors and Marines, but because it was docked, only 160 sailors were aboard when the blaze started.

Adm. Sobeck said Monday there was no ordnance aboard the ship and that the fire hadn’t reached the ship’s fuel supply.
The Navy intended the ship, commissioned in 1998, to be a part of the Navy fleet for roughly 40 years. But on Monday, one Navy official said that while they still have yet to assess the extent of the damage, “it’s going to take an enormous effort” to get the ship back out to sea. Navy officials said it would take months at a minimum to repair, and some said they were worried the ship couldn’t be saved at all.

The USS Fitzgerald, the guided-missile destroyer damaged in June 2017 when it collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship near Japan, killing seven sailors, didn’t return to service until earlier this year.
In 2012, a fire erupted aboard the USS Miami, an attack submarine, while it was in maintenance at a Maine shipyard, leading to a public debate over whether to save the ship. But the Navy decided instead that the costs would be too high to repair the ship and formally decommissioned her two years later.