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Fire Breaks Out on U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard in San Diego

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At least 21 people were injured when a fire and an explosion broke out Sunday on a U.S. Navy warship that was docked in San Diego, causing heavy damage and posing unique hazards for firefighters, officials said.

The ship, the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, had been docked at the U.S. naval base when the fire was reported at 8:30 a.m., the Navy said.

About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time, according to the Navy, which said that the injuries were not life-threatening and that all crew members had been accounted for.

But the fate of the vessel was less clear.

Fire Chief Colin Stowell of San Diego told CNN that the fire could burn for several days, “down to the waterline.”

It was not immediately clear what had caused the fire.

A spokeswoman for San Diego Fire-Rescue said later on Sunday that Chief Stowell was not available for further interviews and referred questions to the Navy, which did not say how the fire had started.

The Bonhomme Richard is one of eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships and can carry more than 1,000 sailors, according to the Navy. Its cost has been estimated at $761 million by the Federation of American Scientists.

Two other warships that had been docked nearby were moved to other piers as a precaution, the Navy said.

The Bonhomme Richard is an amphibious assault ship capable of carrying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. It was docked at the base in San Diego for scheduled maintenance between deployments, said Krishna Jackson, a Navy spokeswoman.

The ship has light arms but would not normally have large explosive munitions, such as airdropped bombs, on board while docked, she said. The sailors assigned to it were staying in Navy or private housing on shore and were not on board when the fire started, Ms. Jackson said.

A “duty section” of sailors trained to fight fires was on board when the fire started, she said, and they were the first to respond.

Eric A. Dukat, a retired U.S. Navy commander who is now an associate professor in the College of Maritime Operational Warfare at the U.S. Naval War College, said sailors are thoroughly equipped to handle fires on ships.

“Everyone gets trained to be a firefighter, flooding stopper — all the damage control — and that’s because when you’re out at sea, there’s nobody coming to you,” he said.

Professor Dukat, who worked as a damage control assistant aboard the U.S.S. Wasp, said fires on ships “are not like a house fire” and present a unique hazard because of the rising heat inside the vessel and the intense steam that’s produced when water is used.

“Imagine a fire inside of a ship, just imagine the inside of your oven,” he said.

In 1967, a fire on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal killed more than 130 sailors after a rocket accidentally fired on the flight deck and ignited several explosions. The episode has been used as a lesson on how to tackle safety procedures aboard Navy vessels, Professor Dukat said.

John Liddle, a lieutenant commander who retired from the Navy last year after 20 years of service, said in an interview Sunday that fighting a fire while a ship is in port can be harder because not all crew members are available and safety standards are different when the vessel is not at sea.

The original Bonhomme Richard was the first Navy vessel to defeat an enemy ship in combat, the H.M.S. Serapis, in 1779. The present-day U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard has participated in numerous operations, including Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Anaconda and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Aimee Ortiz, Brian Pietsch and Allyson Waller contributed reporting.

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