The day the fire broke out on a Navy amphibious assault ship in San Diego, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck said he was confident the Bonhomme Richard would sail again.
But as the fire rages in both ends of the amphib two days later, Sobeck, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, is less confident about the vessel's salvageability.
"When you look at the outside of the ship, you don't get the full picture," he said during a press conference Tuesday. "We haven't been inside the ship well enough to be able to get a full picture. It's just too early to tell."
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The Navy will thoroughly investigate the incident, Sobeck added, including the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage to the ship.
Hundreds of Navy and other federal firefighters have been fighting for days to put out the blaze, which started in the Bonhomme Richard's lower cargo hold, known as the "Deep V," Sobeck said. At one point, it swept through the length of the ship and is now contained in two spots.
"Right now, we're combating two fires in different parts of the ship: one forward and one aft," he said. "The one aft, we're still investigating, but we're finding out it's an additional heat source that we want to investigate and find out if it's an actual fire or just residual."
He said it's "absolutely possible" the fire could be put out in the next 24 hours, though it remains a challenge.
"We're still fighting a major fire," he said.
Four more sailors have been injured in the blaze since Monday, reaching a total of 38. Twenty-three civilians have also been hurt.
As of Monday, five people were hospitalized, but Sobeck said they've all been released. The injuries sustained in the fire have been minor, he added, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Teams have investigated the four main engineering spaces, finding no damage, he added. Sobeck also said there's no threat to the fuel tanks, which on Monday he said were within about two decks of the fire.
"The ship is stable, and the structure is safe," he said.
Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Barelli, with the service's San Diego sector, said there is no evidence of fuel in the water.
"We're taking every precaution to prepare for the worst-case scenario," Barelli said. "... There is no discernible sheen [of fuel] on the water."
There's currently a mix of saltwater and fuel in the tanks, Sobeck said, which is further helping to keep it cool. It's below the waterline and "far, far away from any heat source," he said.
-- Gina Harkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.
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