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An amphibious assault ship caught fire after an explosion on Sunday at Naval Base San Diego, injuring 18 sailors and filling the skies with smoke.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Firefighters, backed by helicopters, are still battling the blaze raging aboard the Navy’s USS Bonhomme Richard on Monday, more than 24 hours after flames were first reported at its pier in San Diego.

The fire and efforts to contain it have injured 57 firefighters, including 34 sailors. Most of the injuries have been minor, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Five personnel remain hospitalized in stable condition, said Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of  Expeditionary Strike Group 3, at a briefing for reporters Monday.

Damage has been extensive, including to the ship’s upper decks and superstructure. The ship is listing, and sailors are working to keep it stable, Sobeck said.

The fire erupted well below the deck and generated extreme heat, reaching 1,000 degrees, Sobeck said. The top priority for firefighters is preventing heat and flames from reaching the ship’s fuel tanks, which hold 1 million gallons of petroleum. 

Plastic, rags, drywall and cardboard stored in a vast hold have fueled the flames.

Helicopters and tug boats are pouring water on the ship to cool it and extinguish the fire. 

“We’re still using helos to dump water,” said Lt. Cdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Navy spokeswoman. 

It’s unclear how long it will take to control the fire. 

The cause of the fire aboard Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel, is unknown, Sobeck said. The ship was undergoing maintenance when the fire began. All crew members have been accounted for.

Sailors reported the fire at about 8:30 a.m. PDT Sunday. Firefighters from the Navy, federal and local departments have worked in shifts to deal with extreme heat.

The Navy sent two destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, away from their berths to avoid damage.

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The cost of replacing the Bonhomme Richard would be about $4 billion, said Todd Harrison, an expert on military budgets at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It would take several years to build.

“And it’s worth noting that despite the fact that the Navy calls it an amphibious assault ship, it’s really a small aircraft carrier,” Harrison said.

The Bonhomme Richard was commissioned in 1998. Its full crew is about 1,000 sailors and can ferry an additional 2,000 Marines to battlefields. At 844 feet in length, the ship is second only to an aircraft carrier in size and accommodates helicopters and warplanes such as F-35 and large hovercraft to bring Marines ashore.

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