SAN DIEGO (News Nation/FOX 5 San Diego) — Smoke continued to rise Monday on a U.S. Navy warship docked off the California coast for the second day. A fire started Sunday morning aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, forcing 160 sailors to evacuate the ship. Twenty-one people were hospitalized, and five of those remained in stable conditions as of Monday morning, Navy officials said.
Fifty-seven people were treated for minor injuries such as heat exhaustion or smoke inhalation, according to Navy officials. Water-dropping helicopters circled Naval Base San Diego on Monday morning, News Nation affiliate FOX 5 San Diego reported.
The fire broke out sometime before 9 a.m. Sunday and flames spread through the vessel rapidly forcing crews to leave. The ship had been undergoing maintenance, and all military personnel were accounted for, the Navy said.
In an evening news conference Sunday, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said the fire was originally reported in the lower vehicle storage area of the ship. Navy and federal firefighters had to clear out compartment spaces in order “to close in the center of the fire,” Sobeck said.
“Sailors across this waterfront are absolutely doing a magnificent job to save the USS Bonhomme Richard,” he said. “They are fighting their ship and they are saving their ship. The resiliency of our sailors and the team around them, we’re seeing just incredible results.”
In a tweet Sunday, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer thanked the “brave sailors and rescue crews.”
“We are here for the sailors and civilians affected by the ship fire at Naval Base San Diego,” Faulconer said. “@SDFD and other first responders continue to lend support. All of the crew is off the USS Bonhomme Richard and accounted for.”
Local firefighters were instructed to exit the pier before noon Sunday, the department said, and were replaced by the federal crews.
Initial reports indicated there was an explosion before the fire. Navy officials said they are still investigating.
“What we cannot ascertain is exactly what that explosion was caused from,” Sobeck said.
He said the blast was believed to have been triggered by the rapid initial release of heat from a confined space under pressure, as opposed to an explosion of fuel.
“As the compartment started heating up, that caused a pressurization and that’s sort of what caused that explosion,” Sobeck said. “Certainly under due caution, we evacuated, reset the perimeter and then go back and fight the fire.”
Navy spokesman Mike Raney told Reuters there was no immediate evidence of foul play.
Ammunition normally carried aboard warships at sea had already been unloaded as a standard safety precaution before the vessel was placed into maintenance, Navy officials said.
Roughly 1 million gallons of fuel remained isolated “well below where any heat source is,” and fire crews worked all day to “make sure that’s not affected,” Sobeck said.
With heavy smoke visible in the area, officials in nearby National City, Calif. urged residents to take precautions to limit potential health impacts, including staying indoors and limiting outdoor activities. A distinct odor could be smelled across the city of San Diego Sunday evening and Monday morning, FOX 5 San Diego reported.
Sailors stationed near the fire who weren’t directly involved in the emergency response were directed to shelter-in-place “until further notice,” base officials Tweeted on Sunday.
Navy Base San Diego said there are a number of scams asking for financial donations.
The USS Bonhomme Richard was commissioned in August 1998, according to the U.S. Navy. It’s one of eight Multiple Purpose Amphibious Assault Ships in the Navy’s fleet. The warship is the largest of amphibious warships and resembles a small aircraft carrier.
The vessel normally carries a crew of roughly 1,000.
Two guided-missile destroyers docked nearby, the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, were moved to piers farther from the burning vessel early in the afternoon, the Navy said.