Starting on Sunday, there was fairly non-stop news about the USS BONHOMME RICHARD (LHD-6) on fire in San Diego. The fire was extensive, burning from the middle of the 844 foot long ship, burning in 11 of her 14 decks all around the ship. It’s caused significant damage, and there are already talks it may not be salvageable. To put a dollar amount on it, she cost about 750 million to make in 1998, but today it would cost more like $3.3 billion to build a replacement vessel.
Most people’s first question is, how in the heck can a fire rage through a ship like that? The answer is complicated. First, BONHOMME RICHARD was in a maintenance availability period. She had a large number of shipyard workers fixing a variety of systems onboard. Imagine if you hired contractors to replace your roof, drywall and paint two rooms, replace your kitchen sink, and rewire half your house all at the same time. My first ship was in a maintenance period, and I didn’t recognize the rooms I was in while walking around. It’s a confusing, crazy, dirty mess to try and fix complex systems.
Extra complexity means nothing is normal, with firefighting as no exception. Firefighting equipment gets moved around to support maintenance, and on an 844 foot ship, that might mean extensive portions where there isn’t much equipment. Holes get cut in decks, requiring extra ventilation equipment and rerouting of normal movement paths, which makes getting to and from places hard. All that extra equipment is an inviting target for a fire. Even small fires take way more time and effort to find, fight, isolate and eventually put out.
Fighting fires on a ship is scary business. I’ve gone through our basic firefighting trainers. They are difficult. Contrary to the movies, a firefight is almost pitch black due to the smoke. So imagine you’ve got on 40 pounds of extra gear, breathing through a mask, walking in pitch black conditions, dragging a hose with you while the guy behind you with an infrared sensor guides you towards hot spots that you can’t see. That’s the reality of firefighting. A friend of mine fought a large fire on a submarine and nearly drown when the deck gave out below him and dumped him in a large pool of water, the same water he had been spraying on the fire. He’s really in shape, and even he struggled to get out.
I’m not surprised BONHOMME RICHARD caught fire and that it was bad. What I want to know is whether it’ll cause changes in the future. The shipyard has always been a dirty place, and shipyard workers aren’t normally known for cleanliness. Navy Sailors, unfortunately, get used to this and develop just as bad of habits, which the senior enlisted try desperately to fix. When I visited Japan, I was shocked at just how clean the shipyard was. While you can’t always keep an area clean, going days and weeks without cleanup significantly increases the chance for fires, accidents and all sorts of problems. If this fire forces the Navy to work with shipyards to clean up their act, it would be something useful in an otherwise tragic circumstance.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.