A fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego started Sunday and was extinguished Thursday.

A fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego started Sunday and was extinguished Thursday. (Austin Haist/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — The Navy’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, toured the fire damage to the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on Friday, describing it as “very extensive in terms of the damage and the intensity.”

“We've not seen a fire of this magnitude in a Navy ship in recent memory, at least in my career,” Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said during a news conference following the tour of the ship.

The fire aboard the amphibious assault ship started Sunday morning and lasted more than four days, spreading throughout the ship. During the effort to extinguish the multiple fires, 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries and helicopters were called in to dump water on the ship to cool it down.

Gilday said he toured four decks plus the flight deck, and he inspected the damage to the ship’s superstructure.

“I was able to get a good sense of the extent of the damage, and the damage is extensive. There is obviously electrical damage to the ship, there's structural damage to the ship, and mechanical damage to the ship that we need to assess in much more detail before we make a final determination of next steps,” he said.

Navy officials believed there was potential to get the fire under control and put it out by Sunday evening, according to Gilday. However, the wind coming off the bay and the location of the fire allowed it to spread throughout the ship.

“This fire probably couldn't have been in a worse point on the ship in terms of its source that allowed it to spread up elevator shafts as an example, up exhaust stacks as an example. To take that fire up into the superstructure and then forward,” he said.

How the fire started is still unknown, however Navy officials believe it began in the cargo hold where supplies for the maintenance work being conducted on the ship were stored at the time.

There also were a series of explosions during the fire that forced firefighters off the ship, Gilday said. One explosion could be heard about 13 miles away, he said he was told, and another blew debris across the pier and onto another ship.

There will be three different but synchronized investigations into the events of the fire, and Gilday intends to make them available to the public once they are completed. One will be a safety investigation to determine the fire’s cause. Another will be led by Naval Criminal Investigative Service to make certain “there’s no malfeasance at the root of the fire,” Gilday said. The last will be a command investigation to see whether the right procedures were in place and what could have been done differently.

There will also be an assessment to determine the damage to the ship and its future in the Navy. Though Gilday said he believes the defense industry can repair the ship and bring it back to sea, he questions whether the Navy should “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 follow the facts. And we can make reasoned recommendations up the chain of command on the future steps, any future repair efforts with Bonhomme Richard,” he said. Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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