USS Miami Fire: The Cause, the Damage, the Future

Posted by Rebekah
Jun 07 2012

One of these day’s I’ll be able to get back to the announcement of a new U-Boat wreck recently discovered (or re-discovered) near Scotland.  I’ve been enjoying researching that story because the U-1206 was one of those boats that we KNOW sank through mechanical failure, and we know how it happened because most of her crew survived (I’ll give you a hint: the seawater that sank the 1206 came in through something most of us sit on to let water OUT)

But some more news came out about the USS Miami this morning, and I wanted to strike while the iron was still hot, as the old saying goes.

And who would have thought a household(ish) appliance would be responsible?

After the Miami was vented, then explored, the Navy was able to assess the damage.  Among those that went through the Miami were Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Maine’s representative from their First District (which includes Kitterey Maine, where the Portsmouth Shipyard is located) Chellie Pingree.  In addition, Joe Courtney, the representative from Connecticut’s second district (which includes nearby  New London and Groton Connecticut, each major submarine locations, including a submarine-equipped drydock and shipyard) spoke with Navy representatives at the Commissioning of the USS Mississisppi (SSN-782) on June 2. (And WELCOME Mississippi to the Submarine Force!  May you serve long and honorably, together with your crew!–more on her in another post)

First, the damage:  Most accounts agree that the following compartments were damaged:  The Torpedo Room, the Command and Control Center, and some of Crew’s Living Quarters.  Connecticut’s newspaper, The Day, states that crew’s berthing, specifically, was damaged.  Another newscast that specifically cites Sen. Snowe highlighted the “Sonar Room” as one of the highly damaged areas.  Together, that means the damaged sections of Miami are located (roughly) here:

The cross section of a Los-Angeles submarine with the allegedly damaged areas highlighted in red.

Thankfully, there were no weapons on board when this happened and it doesn’t sound like (at least no one’s mentioning it) that the batteries were in any way ruptured, even though they were just below the torpedo room.  In that interview that includes Senators Snowe and Collins, two of the firefighters talked about fighting the blaze–like going into a tin can where the fire’s temperatures are just intense.  Getting in and out of the sub, they said, was like descending into a chimney, but there is no choice.  The worst damage, from all accounts, is in the Control and Command Center and Sonar Compartment, located on the top level.

This is likely Miami's control room, as photographed by the Navy during her 1994 overhaul. According to reports, this room was likely one of the most damaged in the May 23 fire. The only thing I recognize, which hints that this is the control room, is the helm that's just there on the right of the photo. I have to smile when I see the tarps pinned over the dials on the helm's instrument panel. When a similar helm from USS Silversides (II) SSN-679 was delivered to the USS Silversides Submarine Museum, some of those same dials had been removed and replaced by covered wooden corks. Some things are just going to remain classified. Photo source: navsource.org

Miami has been drained and had temporary lights and staging equipment installed, and just late yesterday the cause of the fire was announced:

A Vacuum.

…..?!!!!!

The vacuum in question, whose name, make, model, kind, ect., is still unannounced at this time, was in an unoccupied compartment when the fire started.  Being in an unoccupied compartment probably helped the blaze to spread more quickly than if it had started in an occupied compartment.

But two details that I managed to find, located in the Boston Herald and The Day, added more details to this story.

The Boson Herald’s article states that the vacuum, when the fire started, was UNPLUGGED.  The Day, quoting Rep. Courtney, said that Courtney was told the Miami blaze started after burning embers in the vacuum ignited other refuse in the machine.”  Makes sense to me.  To complicate matters further and give the fire more time to settle in, the first responders initially went to the wrong level in the submarine, before locating the blaze.  It’s possible, though no one knows (or is saying publicly), that the fire alarm which initially alerted the Miami’s crew and workers to the fire, gave the wrong location of the fire, leading to the confusion.

So that’s how it started and got strong enough to require nearly 12 hours of suppression to put it out.

A photo of crew's berthing from Miami's close sister sub, USS Asheville. Modern US nuclear submarines practice "hot bunking" where two crewmembers share a bunk in alternating shifts. That aside, think about trying to fight a fire down here, two decks below the only way out! Likely in the dark! Source: navsource.org

While initial repair estimates varied (Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal quoted initial repairs at $700 million to $1 billion), the current (very) rough estimate the Navy cited is $400 million dollars, plus another $40 million for cost overruns, since Miami, if she’s repaired, will now be in Portsmouth much longer than her original scheduled release of November 2013.  That $40 million will cover rescheduling and reshuffling other repairs, other sub’s schedules, and possibly hiring other contractors to cover parts of various projects this will now cause or inconvenience.

The Navy and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is quick to point out that investigations are still ongoing and that quote may change.  Right now, Miami is having her internal and external hulls examined for more damage.  Any heat warping or damage here will be VERY expensive to fix.  JAG is still conducting its investigation.  NCIS, having concluded that the fire was not arson or any criminal involvement, has closed theirs.  The results of all the various investigations are expected to conclude soon with an announcement sometime at the end of next week (June 15 or so) about the full extent of the damage, Miami’s fate, and the costs of either recycling or repairs.  So we still have to wait for the conclusion of this story.

From Miami's close sister, USS Asheville, a torpedo room photo. Granted, the torpedoes were off the Miami during the fire, but this might give a hint and the close and cramped quarters a submarine really has. And by the time the fire fighters got this far down, they had to descend THREE decks. The battery, by the way, is just beneath this deck. Batteries which don't like heat. And do like to explode in the right conditions. Those are some firefighters! Source: navsource.org

And those firefighters were probably wearing gear similar to this. Again from the Asheville, taken in 2007 during a civilian dive day, the crew demonstrates fire fighting techniques. Each fireman would have to carry his own air, which, according to articles, only held a half-hour's air. You could carry two. (as an aside, it was December when this photo was taken, and you can get the sense how submariners decorate for the holidays on board) Source: navsource.org

The Navy has a general standing policy of fixing her boat and surface ships whenever possible.  It’s often cheaper to do so.   The Miami, with 22 years service under her belt, cost $900 million to build initially, and has already undergone at least two previous overhauls (1994 in Groton and 2002 in Portsmouth, which included extensive modernization).  The modern Virginia-class boats which are now rolling off the ways in Newport News (VA) and Groton (CT) each cost $2.6 billion, hence the reason we don’t build as many submarines as we used to.  I counted three under construction right now, with delivery dates varying from the Minnesota estimated to be commissioned late next year, to the North Dakota whose keel was laid only this past May 11.  Construction will take between 15-20 months, testing a further 5-8.) So, provided Miami’s repairs aren’t too expensive for the potential years the Navy could now get out of her, they’ll likely keep her.  Right now, that’s the scuttlebutt, that she will be kept, but the final decision is, of course, pending on those final results of the various investigations.

There is, as it turns out, one more resource at hand to help Miami: her older sister, MEMPHIS (SSN 691).  Memphis, who is also a Los Angeles submarine like Miami, served from 17 December 1977 to 1 April 2011.  She came to Portsmouth to begin the inactivation process, which includes de-fueling the reactor (and storing or reprocessing the nuclear rods), shutting down the sub and removing any usable equipment, removing the entire reactor COMPARTMENT before making her watertight and sending her off to be recycled.  So, Miami has a (kind of) twin full of spare parts, sitting in a drydock not too far away which could reduce the costs of bringing her back into service. (Both in money and in time)

Taken on her way to be decommissioned, this is the USS Memphis, whose parts may go back into service aboard the Miami. Source: navsource.org

That’s where the Miami stands for now.  Her future seems to be gleaming again, but the final decision is still coming.  Incidentally, while researching this post, I did some digging into what Miami has been up to for the last 22 years.  It’s always difficult (if not downright impossible) to figure out what and where a submarine is at any given time, but what I did find about her career is interesting.  More on that later.  And the U-1206.  And the mini Japanese submarine recently discovered outside SYDNEY harbor, Australia.  And the USS Mississippi…

 

For more information (besides the links in the article)

http://rt.com/usa/news/miami-nuclear-sub-blaze-254/  (This article also references a similar fire on Dec 29 2011 aboard the YEKATERINBERG in Russia.  YEKATERINBERG is being repaired and put back into service.)

http://portsmouth-nh.patch.com/articles/pnsy-officials-vacuum-cleaner-caused-uss-miami-fire 


 

Trackback URL for this entry