Health issues and client work (I do graphic arts and writing in addition to the historical research for this blog…besides all the regular stuff you do with and for your family!) have bogged me down lately, but I do pay attention to some of the search terms that bring people here, and I want to give my readers what they want (or stories they may never find otherwise!) so with a <gasp> moment today, here we go…
There have been submarines in the news a lot lately…from the wreck of the WWII Japanese midget submarine recently discovered off Sydney Australia, to the recently discovered U-1206, to US First Lady Michelle Obama sponsoring the new submarine USS Illinois (joining ranks with former First ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton)…the list goes on and on.
It’s unusual to see this many submarines all at once, but interesting.
As I’ve reached a breathing space in my most recent project for a museum client, I decided to tackle the news story that I noticed a lot of searches for lately: The fire aboard the Miami last week.
Miami, first of all, is a Los-Angeles class submarine which entered service in 1990. The Los Angeles class boats are the third largest class of submarines in the Navy (second only to the WWII-era Balao and Gato classes, respectively) and have been serving since 1976. If the Navy continues in their policies, it is unlikely that any Los-Angeles class submarine will be opened for public display as a museum ship, so what we know about their layout relies on information the Navy releases.
Like all nuclear submarines, Miami occasionally has to go into drydock, not only for the normal repairs for regular wear-and-tear that the sea puts on any ocean vessel, but also possibly to overhaul/replace the nuclear plant or fuel rods. A lot of what exactly happens is, obviously, top secret and kept vague, but what has been released is that Miami entered drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Kittery, Maine) for a scheduled 20-month overhaul on March 1, 2012. Once secure, her nuclear plant was shut down, though her nuclear fuel rods were left on board. From what I understand from nuc sub vets, if a sub is undergoing significant overhauls or repairs, shutting down the nuclear plant seems to be a standard step. All weapons, from torpedoes and missiles down to likely the small arms, were also removed.
A submarine is a much more cramped and limited space to work and live in than a surface ship, and when you combine that with welders, braziers, grinders, electricity and other sources of sparks and flame, it can get…interesting. To that end, whenever there is a possibility of fire, there is a fire watch on duty. His job is to make sure every safety precaution is taken to keep fire from breaking out and, if it does, keep it from spreading.
The fire on Miami started around 5:45 pm on May 23, 2012, and burned for 12 hours, 5 minutes. From all accounts, it was a fierce blaze. These quotes jumped out at me from the accounts I’ve been reading:
“There was stuff burning that I didn’t even know could burn on a submarine,” John Dwire Jr., one of the firefighters, said Tuesday.
Deep inside the hull, Dwire said, he had to cut through the burning wires and cables overhead and then duck or crawl just to get to the fire in the forward section of the Groton-based attack submarine.
“It’s like going into a chimney,” said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard firefighter David Funk, who described insulation and wiring fueling a smoky fire that became hot enough for aluminum to burst into flames.
In total, seven people were injured between the fire and the fighting, but all, thankfully, have already been released from medical care.
How or what caused the fire on Miami has not been disclosed, and a thorough investigation is underway about it. The problem with studying the Sub Force is, for security reasons, we (the public) might never be told the details of all that happened. Still, what has been released is the fire was located in the command and control and living quarters of the Miami, which puts the fire about here:
Apparently, once the firefighters left the submarine, the damaged sections of the boat were sealed, preventing a small stray spark from reigniting another fire. It’s only been recently that the Miami was opened, vented, and inspected.
From what I’ve been able to find out, the investigation will now (likely) center on some the following questions:
1.) What started the fire and how did it spread?
2.) Were all fire precaution procedures followed?
3.) Where was the fire watch when this went on?
4.) Did everyone follow procedures to limit human injury and casualty and damage to the Miami?
5.) Was this preventable based on current safety procedures (and if so, who carries the blame?)
6.) If this was due to a unique or unforeseen set of circumstances, will more or better fire procedures prevent this from happening again?
There are likely more questions, but those are the ones that seem to pop up in my reading. On the line could be the careers of the shipyard’s CO (if he did not enforce proper procedures that could have prevented or lessened the damage to Miami), the CO of the Miami (same reason on board his boat) the Fire Watch on duty (if he had fallen asleep or somehow been absent from or derelict in his duty, for example), anyone else involved, and the future of the Miami herself.
The investigation is currently estimated to be complete in 2-3 weeks.
Miami was scheduled to be practically torn apart and reassembled over the next 18 months, so her future will be partially dependent on what the fire DID. There are rumors (gotta love scuttlebutt) that the portion of the boat that was damaged was already pretty well gutted, so that’s a point in her favor. Officially, over 3 million gallons of water were used in dousing the blaze, and some compartments were nearly flooded, so there’s bound to be some water damage as well as fire. If the heat of the fire damaged her frame or structure in some way that would make her susceptible to underwater weakness, or something else that would seriously compromise the Miami without extensive repairs, the Navy may choose to scrap her instead, despite her relatively young 22 years. If the damage would cause only a few more months and millions, and the forecasted use of the Miami over the next twenty years outweighs having one less US submarine in the oceans, they may decide to add the fire repairs to the roster and keep moving forward.
How these decisions are made are complex and multi-faceted. When the San Francisco ran into an underwater mountain in 2005 and practically removed her bow up to the forward battery (one of the few times you can clearly see the sonar array in a submarine’s bow), one of the factors that saved her from being scrapped was the fact that she had just recently come out of an overhaul, including a complete refueling. It was more cost-effective, from the Navy’s point of view, to keep the San Francisco with her new fuel rods and updated technology, and replace San Fran’s bow with the bow of her soon-to-be-retired sister USS Honolulu.
A fire that ended a submarine’s career early was the fire on the USS Bonefish in 24 April 1988. While at sea, a leak caused a battery explosion and fire. The fire was so intense that it reached 1200 degrees and melted the crew’s shoe soles on the deck above the battery compartment. Three men died and the Bonefish was abandoned at sea. The remaining 89 submariners were rescued by helicopters from two nearby aircraft carriers and a whaleboat. The damage, once Bonefish was towed into drydock and examined, was too severe to fix, and she was scrapped.
So what happens to the Miami the next few weeks and months will depend on the findings of the investigation. Whatever is announced to the public, it’s likely that if she’s saved, the damage was minimal, or minimal enough to warrant her return to the force.
We can all hope for the best, and be thankful that whatever happens, if there is a casualty, it’ll be Miami, none of her crew.
For more information:
http://bubbleheads.blogspot.com/2012/05/fire-on-uss-miami.html (Written by a former submariner so he knows what he’s talking about)
http://www.unionleader.com/article/20120529/OPINION01/705299999 (Features some of the repercussions that the Portsmouth Yard could face due to the fire.)
http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20120527-NEWS-205270338 This article features more about the fire watch and how the procedures that are normally followed in drydock cases.