More than 400 sailors are fighting to save the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard from a devastating fire that broke out on the vessel Sunday morning.
At least two decks stand between the fire and the roughly 1 million gallons of fuel on the big-deck amphib at Naval Base San Diego, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said Monday.
For the second day, firefighters are attacking the blaze from the ship and the air, with helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 dropping more than 415 loads of water on the Bonhomme Richard.
One of the biggest efforts, Sobeck said, is "making sure that we've got a buffer between heat and where the fuel is."
For now though, he said, nothing "toxic in nature" is burning.
Five of the 57 people injured by the blaze remain hospitalized in stable condition, he added.
Thirty-four are sailors, Sobeck said, and 23 are civilians. The top injuries are heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
About 160 people were on the Bonhomme Richard when the fire started Sunday morning in the ship's lower cargo hold, known as the "Deep V." The ship was undergoing maintenance at the time, though Sobeck said he didn't believe anyone was working on that area when the fire broke out.
Scaffolding and other debris have gotten in the way of the firefighting efforts, he added, sounding less confident Monday that the Bonhomme Richard would be saved as temperatures on the ship reach up to 1,000 degrees.
Crews are working to pump water out of the ship, even as firefighters flood it with water to slow the blaze.
The ship's upper decks and superstructure have been damaged, Sobeck said, and the forward mast has collapsed. The ship is also listing, tilted by its damage and from the amount of water that has been used to combat the fire.
"Right now, we're doing everything we can to do exactly that," he said of saving the amphib. "Once they get the fire out, which is the priority, then we'll make the assessment."
Sobeck credited Bonhomme Richard crew members who were aboard the ship when the fire broke out with preventing further damage and injuries.
"The sailors from Day 1 are trained to react as soon as they hear either a sound, a signal, a smell, or any sense of fire or danger," he said. "They will respond, react, and then make sure [there's] safety of self, ship and shipmate, and that's exactly what they did."
Retired Capt. Lawrence Brennan, a Fordham University School of Law professor, was aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz when it caught fire in 1981, killing 14. A crew's actions, he said, stand out in those worst moments.
"I am always amazed, but never should be, by the heroism of Navy personnel," he said.