Training Shows In Fighting Ship Fire

| July 16, 2020 | 20 Comments

Disclaimer: Instead of doing my own take on this subject, it was simpler and easier to provide a full copy of the article by Charles Selle on the subject of training for things like shipboard fires, and how it was when he was much younger, on a tour with other kids to NS Great Lakes.

Lessons learned by sailors at Great Lakes aid in containment

Article by Charles Selle 7/16/2020

One of the perks of being a patrol boy in junior high school was the annual trip to Naval Station Great Lakes, where part of the tour included watching sailors practice fighting shipboard fires. Those visits to the training area returned this week with the footage of the USS Bonhomme Richard smoldering in San Diego Bay.

Never mind that our school officials drafted young boys to escort youngsters across the busy state highway armed with nothing but a pearl-colored faux Sam Browne belt. Yet, no first or second graders perished on our watch.

Today, adults, toting vivid “stop” signs are paid to be crossing guards at most Lake County schools. They include those who escort Warren Township High School freshmen and sophomores, and Viking Junior High School students across Grand Avenue at O’Plaine Road in Gurnee, where motorists wait often when school lets out.

We patrol boys were not reimbursed by the school district, but as thanks for our annual service in rain, snow and heat, we were bused to Great Lakes. The school principal was a Navy man; his boss, the superintendent, had served in the Marine Corps.

On the way to the naval base, they would swap friendly gibes, the Marine pointing out the Navy is merely the Corps’ taxi service, and the ex-sailor countering that the Marines couldn’t go anywhere without the Navy.

Before the firefighting drills, lunch was included at a Navy galley. The quality of food failed to entice any of us to enlist in that branch of the service, but at least it wasn’t an Army mess.

Then came the fire-control display, which was quite realistic, at least to a preteen. Oily smoke billowed from a land-based mock-up of a ship’s bridge as flames rose.

Sailors grouped together in protective gear sprayed water and other fire suppressants to extinguish their training blaze. As one damage-control instructor said succinctly: “When a fire breaks out onboard ship, there is no 9-1-1 to call.” Every sailor becomes a firefighter in order to fight shipboard fires and control damage.

Since Sunday morning, more than 400 sailors and fire crews from across San Diego Bay have been fighting the stubborn blaze aboard the Bonhomme Richard, a 23-year-old, 840-foot amphibious assault ship which has been at its sprawling home port since 2018 for routine maintenance. The vessel, used to deploy Marines in amphibious landings, normally has a crew of 2,000 sailors and Marines.

Fortunately, only 160 sailors were on the ship when the fire broke out, according to The Associated Press. That was enough to initially confront the blaze. Still, there were 61 injuries and no deaths.

Thirty-eight sailors and 23 civilians were treated, mostly for minor injuries related to firefighting where temperatures reached nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the AP reported. The blaze onboard the ship, named for the Bonhomme Richard commanded in the American Revolutionary War by Capt. John Paul Jones, is one of the biggest fires on a Navy ship outside of combat, the San Diego Union-Tribune said.

Most of the sailors on Jones’ namesake Bonhomme Richard trained at Great Lakes, either for boot camp or at damage-control school. The blaze has been fought around the clock and hopefully struck by the time this is being read.

Navy officials say the ship so far is stable and the structure is safe, as is the 1 million gallons of fuel inside the vessel. It’s too early to tell how much damage the fire has done to the ship, and whether it will survive or be scuttled. The cause of the fire was an explosion in which the fire quickly spread through the Bonhomme Richard’s wide-open hangar space which added oxygen to the flames, reports said.

If the ship is saved, sailors trained at Great Lakes would appear to have learned their drills well. Battling a fire on a large ship isn’t like putting out a garage fire.

There was a quick and immediate response of shipboard firefighters, who couldn’t activate the Bonhomme Richard’s foam-extinguishing fire system because of the explosion, Navy officials said.

Despite being at a peaceful anchor, the San Diego Bay fire illuminates that danger remains ever-present to those who serve in our military. From the devastating Bonhomme Richard fire, real world lessons have been learned and likely enhance Navy training for future damage-control specialists.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

Category: Navy

Comments (20)

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  1. Claw says:

    The very first report I read on the fire said it started in a used dry solvent (PD-680?) barrel that was a oily/greasy rag collection point, so maybe the “explosion” was a spontaneous combustion.

    • Peter the Bubblehead says:

      Word I’m hearing through the grapevine is the explosion originated in a breaker for one of the ship’s diesel emergency generators and somehow quickly spread from there – likely due to materials in place for the maintenance and the fact hatches that could normally be closed during an emergency were fouled by hoses, pipes, air lines and assorted what-have-you.
      It was similar problems that contributed to the loss of USS Miami in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard a number of years ago, though THAT fire was started on purpose by a s#!&bag yardbird who wanted to go home to his girlfriend early.

  2. The Other Whitey says:

    Watching the news feed, I was thinking that the Navy hasn’t had something this bad happen since Iowa’s turret explosion in ‘89. In terms of damage to the ship, this probably rivals Forrestal and Franklin. At least this time the injuries were minor. Thank God nobody died.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      Those thoughts went thru my head when this first broke. And to repeat the comment I made then, “…someone got some ‘splaining to do Lucy!”

      Good read, Thanks.

  3. MK75Gunner says:

    From multiple reports it looks like the ship might actually be a total loss. They were in a dockside yard availability and likely had minimal crew onboard to fight the fire. This looks really bad.

  4. MustangCryppie says:

    “The quality of food failed to entice any of us to enlist in that branch of the service, but at least it wasn’t an Army mess.”

    Heh.

    • Peter the Bubblehead says:

      Many MANY years ago, back when I was a Cub Scout, I can remember taking a tour of a US Navy destroyer that was docked at the Maritime College beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge in the Bronx, and how much I enjoyed the fried chicken they served in the crew’s mess for lunch.

      • MustangCryppie says:

        I was never PCS’d to a ship, but I was TAD to all kinds.

        Everyone goes on about how great the chow on subs is, but I never thought it was that great. Probably the best part on boats was the “autodog.” By the way, every time a friend of mine hears that term, he busts out laughing. Damn brown shoes.

        Believe it or not, the best food I ever had at sea was on USS America CV-66 when we were deployed to the North Arabian Sea. The skipper, Captain “Snuffy” Smith, took good care of us.

        I was shocked at how good the food was. I remembered what the food was like on the other carriers I deployed on.

        • rgr1480 says:

          “Autodog” …. okay, I had to look that up.

          Unfortunately. (^__^)

          Auto Dog – (USN) Soft serve ice cream, due to its similarity in appearance (at least when having chocolate flavor) to dog feces.

          • Peter the Bubblehead says:

            Little known fact: The first automate ice cream machine installed aboard submarines during World War II was developed by a man the world knows as Tom Carvel. They proved so popular among sub crews that he began a chain of soft-serve ice cream shops around the country.

        • Peter the Bubblehead says:

          I always tell people they say the best chow in the military is aboard subs, but if that’s true then I REALLY feel sorry for the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

    • NHSparky says:

      Guy should have been on Day 85 of a 90-day Spec Op, where coffee grounds were reused 3-4 times and out of yeast for bread.

  5. As I mentioned on an earlier comment about the fire, the saying was on Ladder 2 was that you could knock down any fire with 2 cans and a 6 ft. hook as long as you got there earlier enough although the saying pertained to mostly house/apartment fires, but ship board fires are of a different sort and in this case, the ship was in for maintenance and as mentioned by other commentors, hatches/WTD’s etc were most likely open due to cables/conduits running through them which helped with the spread of the fire. From what I have read here, there were an assortment of fuel in the area ranging from class A fire to a class D fire which would make a large fuel load/package and considering the large area where the material was stored including a high overhead would cause a chimney/stack effect where the fire and products of combustion would rise and pull in large amounts of air causing an increase in temperature spreading the fire through paths of least resistance IE; open hatches wtd’s, ventilation ducts, wire/cable conduits and a possible auto exposure to upper decks. These enclosed vents, ducts and voids make it very hard for members to “open up” and try to make a stop due to the metal construction of the ship. I see the new Navy uses Adjustable fog nozzles, SCBA, bunker gear and thermal cameras which makes it a little easier to make the push. Mentioned also was that the fire suppression system was shut down to being worked on. In my day, we used the Navy all purpose nozzles with just one fog setting and the OBA mask. Fires were fought wearing your dungaree clothes and boondockers. Am suprised that due to the fire suppression being shut down that there was no one standing any fire watches. Were There????

    • 11B-Mailclerk says:

      If this isn’t sabotage, I suspect it will boil down to “dumb assumptions”.

      For example, insufficient expenditure of planning time on “what if someone does something stupid” scenarios.

      Or, “the other folks are covering fire watch” assumptions

      Or, “no one would at the same time reduce available fire fighters, make incorrect or overly optimistic assumptions about who was doing what, scatter combustibles everywhere, block most hatches open, tag out the main suppression systems, and do something really dumb like explode something”.

      Someone may have seen the overall picture and said “Comrades! I killed a carrier with a Zippo!” or maybe it was a massively collective “oops”. Either way, I think it fair to say a whole bunch of procedures need to change.

  6. STGCS SW/AW says:

    Ex PH2 Thank yo for posting the article. In my early years on a Knox Class Frigate I was on the fire party – There is an inherent amount of danger when entering any space on fire. In this case there are multiple complexities at play. Normal fail safes to prevent such things from happening have have been circumvented for real work to take place. I am sure all precautions were put in place so that Halon in normal situations which might be available has been tagged out. The problem with any fire onboard ship is if it gets hot enough it creates like a forest fire its own fire triangle. The crew was ill equipped to handle this scenario on a Sunday morning in a maintenance availability. When steel and aluminum burn bad things happen. I am surprised it did not sink or explode that is the testament to those who fought the blaze. I never served on that class of ship and I have been retired for 12 years so what do I know but I think our sailors and civilian counterparts have done all they could and did a outstanding job containing this fire. I am sure big Navy will do a deep dive and some poor swabby will bear the brunt of the investigation – I hope that does not happen but more often than not it does.

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