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Fire damage assessment awaits for nuclear sub in Kittery shipyard

Posted May 24, 2012, at 8:25 a.m.
Last modified May 24, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.
Smoke rises from a dry dock as fire crews respond Wednesday to a fire on the USS Miami SSN 755 submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
Ionna Raptis | The Herald
Smoke rises from a dry dock as fire crews respond Wednesday to a fire on the USS Miami SSN 755 submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
A fire burns on a nuclear submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, on Wednesday
Jean Mackin | WMUR
A fire burns on a nuclear submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, on Wednesday

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KITTERY, Maine — Officials vented smoke and noxious fumes from a nuclear-powered submarine at a Maine shipyard Thursday so they could get inside to assess damage from a fire that took hours to put out.

Firefighters from the shipyard and coastal departments in Maine and New Hampshire spent Wednesday night and early Thursday fighting the fire on the USS Miami. Seven firefighters and crew members were hurt, but not badly. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, commander of Submarine Group Two, said firefighters isolated the flames so they would not spread to nuclear propulsion spaces. There was nuclear fuel on board the sub, but the reactor has been shut down for two months and was unaffected.

The fire broke out Wednesday evening while the sub was in dry dock during a 20-month overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Authorities said nuclear components were not threatened, but firefighters had to work in cramped quarters and extreme heat.

Breckenridge praised the submarine’s crew, shipyard firefighters and additional firefighters from Maine and New Hampshire, saying there were “a lot of heroes that worked together to save the ship.”

“The fire spread to spaces within the submarine that were difficult to access, presenting a challenging situation for initial responders. But they persevered in incredible heat and smoke conditions, demonstrating exceptional courage,” the admiral told reporters at the entrance of the shipyard.

In a statement released Thursday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that “in situations like this, we see just how brave our first responders are.”

“I spoke to Capt. Fuller who described the tremendous effort it took to battle this blaze,” Collins continued. “I am impressed with the incredible work of some 150 firefighters, led by the shipyard’s unit, and involving firefighters from more than 15 communities in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I understand this was an incredibly challenging and dangerous fire to fight because the heat and smoke were so intense and, at times, firefighters were operating in total darkness.”

Among those deployed to the scene were two trucks and about eight firefighters from the South Portland Fire Department, which brought tanks carrying about 1,000 gallons of foam to the site. Lt. Robb Couture said Thursday his department is unusually well trained for chemical and oil fires, because the city is home to a port, crude oil pipeline and two semiconductor manufacturers, among other things.

Couture said the South Portland firefighters remained on standby at the location and returned to the station after 3 a.m.

“Our resources were deployed, they were on hand if they needed to use them,” he said. “Our department has a certain expertise toward foam firefighting and hydrocarbon firefighting. … We also have members who have been to shipboard firefighting classes, so we not only have the personnel, but the resources to combat a fire like that.”

Working in the submarine’s favor was the fact that workers had removed some of the equipment and gutted part of the submarine during the retrofit, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree after meeting with the shipyard commander.

Pingree described it as a “hot scary mess.”

“It takes a lot of guts to go into a burning building. But the idea of going into a submarine full of hot toxic smoke — that’s real courage,” she said.

Two sailors, three shipyard firefighters and two civilian firefighters were hurt, but their injuries were minor, officials said.

There were no details on the cause, and an investigation will take some time, said Breckenridge.

Crews responded at about 5:40 p.m. Wednesday to the USS Miami. It was not clear how many people were aboard at the time. The submarine is in the third month of a 20-month maintenance period.

Breckenridge said the fire started in the four forward compartments, which include living and command and control spaces.

No weapons were on board.

The USS Miami has a crew of 13 and 120 enlisted personnel. It arrived at the shipyard on March 1 to undergo maintenance work. It was commissioned in 1990 and its home port is Groton, Conn.

Residents reported hearing sirens from firetrucks and ambulances throughout the night, and the smoke spread over the area.

“It smelled like plastic burning,” said Janet Howe of Kittery, who lives three-quarters of a mile from the shipyard.

The fire damaged forward compartments including living quarters, the command and control center, and the torpedo room, leading to speculation on whether costly repairs would be undertaken on the 22-year-old Los Angeles-class attack submarine.

“The duration of the fire suggests extensive damage that could render the vessel useless. These submarines were designed decades ago. So they’re no longer state of the art,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “If this vessel returns to service, I will be amazed.”

Reporters were not allowed onto the base to see the submarine Thursday. But Pingree and others who viewed the vessel said there were no outward signs of damage because the fire was contained inside the 360-foot-long hull.

BDN staff writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.

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