Smoke on the Water: The Global Challenge of Shipyard Fires

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As the U.S. Navy waits for the smoke to clear onboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, naval experts and sailors around the world ask the same thing: “Again?”

While this most recent fire will certainly be one of the most devastating to the U.S. Navy in terms of damage, cost, and the possible loss of a capital vessel, the Bonhomme Richard’s fire is not the first shipyard fire to wreak havoc on a ship’s maintenance availability.

Many remember the devastating 2012 fire aboard the USS Miami, set by a disgruntled shipyard worker who wanted to get out of work early. With repair estimates reaching $700 million, and budget restrictions exacerbated by sequestration, the Navy declined to repair the Miami and instead decommissioned the 20-year-old ship a decade or more prematurely.



Shipyard fires are an unfortunate but not unexpected part of major maintenance availabilities or overhauls. Less than a week after the Bonhomme Richard’s fire, another Wasp-class vessel, the USS Kearsarge, undergoing maintenance in Norfolk, Virginia, suffered a minor fire, leading the Navy to stop all work on the ship temporarily.

On Nov. 14, 2019, the Bonhomme Richard’s sister ship the USS Iwo Jima suffered a fire in Mayport, Florida, during a maintenance availability. It took nearly five hours and support from neighboring ships and local fire departments to bring the fire under control. Although the investigation is still pending, the fire was reported to have begun in a “cargo hold.”

A year earlier on Nov. 10, 2018, a major fire occurred on the USS Oscar Austin, during a year-long maintenance availability in the BAE Systems shipyard in Norfolk. The Oscar Austin was at the tail end of a $41 million maintenance period. Initial reports pointed to “hot work” — the process of welding, cutting, or grinding repairs which create heat and/or sparks — performed by the contractor as the culprit. The estimate to repair the damaged combat system on the Oscar Austin is $16 million and will delay the destroyer’s return to the fleet until at least 2022.

In yet another warning flag for the U.S. Navy, the commanding officer of the USS Fitzgerald criticized the Ingalls shipbuilding yard for more than 15 fire safety incidents. That criticism came in a monthly status report message in May 2019, documenting the lack of fire safety in the Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard as “a major concern on this project and I am extremely concerned that we are on a path to have a catastrophic fire event on board.” Fitzgerald was undergoing $523 million in repairs after a 2017 collision cost 10 lives.

These fires were significant enough to garner media attention but there are likely dozens of near misses and close calls not reported to the public. They highlight the same danger of fires in shipyards across the nation, without limit to a coast, contractor, or company. But the risk of shipyard fires is not just an American problem.

France, China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran

In June 2020, just a few weeks before the Bonhomme Richard’s fire, a French nuclear-powered attack submarine suffered a major fire while undergoing overhaul at the Toulon Shipyard in southern France. The fire, which took 14 hours to extinguish, is under investigation, but French media report that the fire may have begun days before when hot work was accomplished on the submarine, then smoldered until reaching additional combustible material.

On April 11, 2020, social media outlets reported a large fire on the Chinese navy’s new Type-075 carrier, with images of thick black smoke rising from several different points on the ship, including the superstructure, aircraft elevator, and well deck. The large amphibious ship was in the shipyard being fitted out for sea trials later this year. The cause of the fire and extent of the damage has not been released but the ship left port to conduct sea trials as scheduled.

In December of 2019, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov suffered from a fire that killed two and injured at least 11. Turkey’s newest helicopter landing ship caught on fire while leaving drydock in April of 2019, suffering minor damage.

Iran has also suffered a spate of fires this month in its Bushehr shipyard, although it is unclear whether those fires are the results of accidents, sabotage, or some other cause.

What Causes So Many Fires?

One can expect a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire on the Bonhomme Richard, as well as the November fire on the Iwo Jima. But these investigations will take many months to reach completion.

On the other end of the spectrum, China and Russia will probably say nothing more about the causes, the extent of damage, or the costs to repair their capital ships. In fact, within days of the fire on China’s Type-075, images of the freshly painted ship circulated on social media, as if no fire had ever happened. According to news reports, that fire broke out after sparks from welding work entered a fuel handling area and ignited diesel fuel.

In Russia, a spokesperson for the shipyard pointed to human error as the cause of its aircraft carrier fire but stated that the damage would not delay the vessel’s maintenance period.

Without greater transparency, a thorough comparison between causal factors across the international shipbuilding world is unlikely to happen. However, what has been released or leaked about these fires, whether in the United States, France, Russia, or China, all seems to point to the same dangers faced by ships in shipyards around the world.

The Danger of Maintenance and Overhauls

It is counter-intuitive to think that a ship pierside with most of its systems shut down or in lay-up would be more vulnerable to fires than operating at sea, full of fuel and munitions. But it is no secret among naval officers and crews that a ship in a maintenance period is at its most vulnerable, existing in a kind of “no man’s land” between operational and non-functioning.

A close analogy would be the vulnerability of a surgical patient, whose risk of infection is astronomically higher while cut open by experienced, well-trained professionals, in an environment carefully and professionally prepared. The high risk is an accepted part of the procedure, and steps are taken to minimize the risk. Yet the risk remains.

Around the world, ships and their crews are at high risk throughout a maintenance period for many reasons. The work itself is dangerous. Industrial work on steel ships includes welding, grinding, and cutting of steel. During a major overhaul such as the one Bonhomme Richard is in, large holes are often cut in the steel hull and decks, so that old equipment can be removed, and new equipment installed.

Nearly all of a ship’s normal systems are shut down during a major maintenance period. Air conditioning is not running — neither is ventilation. To enable all the work, hoses, wires, and temporary ventilation is routed throughout the ship, impeding doors and hatches from closing. A ship’s decks are protected from the heavy foot traffic and industrial equipment by rubber matting and plywood placed in passageways throughout the ship.

With the decks covered and the ship’s passageways cluttered with extra hoses and wires, it feels completely foreign. It’s hot without air conditioning and industrial work causes tremendous noise. Everyone onboard — contractors and crew alike — work in helmets, goggles, and hearing protection.

Sailors track the work. They document which hatches can no longer be closed, where quick disconnects are in the event of a fire, and which installed fire-fighting systems are disabled. They approve hot work, support quality assurance checks of the work being done, and rove their ship watching for problem spots. The shipyard provides most of the fire watches for the work they perform during a major yard period. These fire watches are among the most tedious and boring jobs, sitting or standing for hours on end in a hot, dirty environment, and so it is relegated to the unskilled laborers in the shipyard’s employ. Since the risk of fire exists not only where the hot work is being performed, but also in adjacent spaces that may not even be on the same deck, a fire watch is often the only person sitting or standing in an empty room. It is not uncommon to find a fire watch in the wrong space, unclear about where the hot work is happening. Because of this, the ship’s crew represents the last line of defense against this confusion as they patrol their spaces ensuring workers are where they should be, awake, and ready to protect the ship.

The crews themselves are vulnerable to many additional risk factors: Maintenance periods often follow long deployments, homeport shifts, or other events that can cause turmoil in crewmembers’ personal lives, with increases in everything from drinking to relationship problems. The crew itself is pulled in many competing directions, often sent off to schools for refresher training or to be trained on the new software and hardware being installed during the same maintenance period. Junior sailors attend new schools to advance their professional qualifications, or to fill the myriad of shipboard requirements from security to damage control to financial readiness that sailors are expected to meet.

Since the ship is torn apart and therefore not expected to sail for months or years, the crew also serves as a surge force to replace last-minute personnel losses on other ships. It’s not uncommon to have prospective gains diverted to higher-priority “deployers” so the ship in the maintenance period accepts the manpower shortage until the personnel system can provide a replacement — often as a result of that ship leaving the maintenance period and reaching “deployer” status itself.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy has not experienced the fires or other disasters that have recently befallen other global navies, despite the rapid construction of two new modern aircraft carriers. But the shipyard’s prioritizing of those two ships has likely caused extensive delays in shipyard work for other classes, including Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, and various submarine classes. The Ministry of Defence has not publicly commented but there is widespread speculation that funding and personnel shortfalls have been a major factor in the delays. A shortage of funding and personnel inevitably increases the risk of fire or other mishap.

Exacerbating the increased demand for schools and reduced personnel available are the increased watch standing requirements normally demanded during a major maintenance period. U.S. Navy ships in maintenance are still responsible for their own external and internal security, maintaining watches to protect from truck bombs, small boat attacks, and active shooters, and roving watches to monitor equipment on the ship, roam the engineering spaces, and investigate any reports of fire, smoke, or flooding alarms.

In addition, a crew in the shipyard should worry about theft from the constant stream of strangers coming and going on the ship. Brass and copper have been known to disappear from ships only to be sold at nearby recycling stations. Authorities in India are investigating the theft of “components of five computers, including four hard disks and RAM,” reportedly stolen from the nation’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier while in the Cochin shipyard in Kerala, India. Many ships add additional watchstanders to inspect bags and boxes leaving the ship to prevent theft and keep honest people honest.

Some of these same factors are undoubtedly faced by Russian and Chinese sailors as well, although to what extent American observers cannot be sure. In the case of the French submarine, with its much smaller crew size, any personnel losses or transfers would have a larger impact. It is still unclear whether crew shortfalls have contributed to any of these fires.

Who Accepts the Risk?

The captain and his or her crew worry about all of this — the fire safety and security, the quality of the work being done, safety and cleanliness of the ship, the training of the crew — and preparing for the ship’s post maintenance life — the training, exercises, manning, and other events that will lead to the next deployment. Most naval officers will agree that the time spent in major maintenance periods is exponentially tougher in every respect than deployments and advanced exercises at sea.

It is also the captain and crew who bear ultimate responsibility for their ship, even in the shipyard. But the cost of the loss of Bonhomme Richard (whether temporary or permanent) will be borne, as Bryan McGrath points out, by the Navy as a whole. It will be borne by the upheaval of schedules and training plans, lengthened deployments, and shortened leave periods.

And, if the Bonhomme Richard is repaired, it will be borne by the Navy’s budget, already stretched too thin to meet the strategic and operational demands of the nation.

In the case of the Miami submarine fire in 2012, the fire occurred in the Navy shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making the Navy financially responsible whether the ship or shipyard was at fault. It remains unclear whether the state-owned shipyards in Russia and China will be held accountable in any meaningful way for the fires there. In France, the fire remains under investigation and it is unclear whether or to what extent Naval Group, the prime contractor, might be held accountable.

General Dynamics, the parent corporation of the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company shipyard in San Diego responsible for the Bonhomme Richard’s maintenance and upgrades, reported $706 million in earnings in first-quarter 2020, on an estimated $8.75 billion in revenue. Yet it is unclear how or if the fire will impact General Dynamics’ bottom line, even if the investigation were to find that the company was solely and totally at fault.

Less than a week after the fire on the Bonhomme Richard, the Navy agreed to pay the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company $10 million to begin clean-up of the fire damage and dewatering of spaces. While the Navy will eventually need to pay someone to assist with the post-investigation clean up, it seems ill-advised to pay the shipyard millions of dollars to fix what is potentially their mistake. At the very least, some of the burned debris from scaffolding, hoses, and equipment destroyed in the fire was the property of National Steel and Shipbuilding Company and the Navy now pays them to remove their own damaged equipment from a fire that they may have caused or to which they contributed.

There is nothing released publicly to indicate that shipyards or their parent companies are held accountable for incidents such as the Bonhomme Richard, Oscar Austin, or Iwo Jima — no announcements of penalties or fines paid by the contractor, and no losses of future maintenance contracts that are attributed to these fire incidents.

The fragile state of shipbuilding and repair in the United States requires the Navy to repeatedly forgive and forget, or at least, forgive. But when the inevitable fires do occur, the Navy should hold the responsible parties at fault, not just with words but financially, and ensure that the impacts and damages are not shouldered by sailors who already have too much on their plates.

In Europe, the state of naval shipbuilding and repair is just as delicate. In March, the outgoing chief executive of France’s Naval Group, the prime contractor responsible for the maintenance of the submarine when the fire occurred, called for a consolidation of Europe’s naval sector if they are to survive competition in the export market. Similarly, the German government is working on a plan to consolidate German shipbuilders after they lost a multi-billion dollar bid to build the next generation German frigate to a Dutch company.

Whether in the United States or Europe, it is difficult for governments to hold accountable companies that are barely afloat when those same companies are also needed to build future platforms critical to the defense of the nation.

There will certainly be some accountability in the case of Bonhomme Richard, and changes to both policy and procedure within maintenance and overhaul periods. In the end, the investigation will probably reveal some tragic combination of causal factors — improper storage of materials, lack of communication between the ship and the shipyard, the dynamic maintenance environment, and a time-compressed, undermanned, and well-intentioned repair effort where both everyone and no one is to blame.

While the loss of an aircraft carrier, submarine, or large amphibious ship impacts every navy, the impacts to the U.S. Navy’s worldwide commitments are critical. The U.S. Navy already takes many careful steps in procedures and training to try to minimize the risks of fires and maintain the carefully planned operational and training commitments. No matter how careful the maintenance, fire risk is inherent in every day of a ship’s life, even more while sitting pierside in a major maintenance period, and no navy in the world can eliminate it.




Matt Phillips is a retired surface warfare officer and naval strategist, and current consultant with WBB, Inc. He is the author of Stowaways (2019), and two forthcoming novels: Pioneers (Fall 2020), and The Port Visit (Winter 2020). All opinions are his own.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Mar’Queon A. D. Tramble)