Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, visited San Diego to inspect the USS Bonhomme Richard – where a fire that took four days to battle was one of the worst to rip through a U.S. warship outside of combat in recent years, according to Navy officials.
"As I walked through the ship today, this morning, I essentially went four decks below the flight deck and then went up to the flight deck," Gilday said. "I took a look at the superstructure. I was able to get a good sense of the extent of the damage, and the damage is extensive."
At a news briefing shortly after noon, Gilday spoke about efforts to fight the fire and addressed whether the ship could -- or should --- be put back in service.
"I know that everybody is interested in the future service of this ship," Gilday said. "I'm 100% confident that our defense industry could put this ship back to sea. But, having said that, the question is: Should we make that investment in a 22-year-old ship? I'm not gonna make any predictions until we take a look at all the facts and we follow the facts, and we can make reasoned recommendations up the chain of command."
Photos: Thick Smoke Billows From Unforgiving Navy Ship Fire
Gilday said his biggest takeaway of the day was the contributions made by those who fought the fire -- a mixture of sailors from the USS Bonhomme Richard, sailors from other ships, and federal and local firefighters.
"I met with fire crews that are getting ready to go aboard the ship … it was quite a humbling experience," Gilday said.
One sailor stood out to him, he said, while pointing out that about 400 people have gone into the ship to fight the blaze.
"In particular, one petty officer that I singled out … her name's ABH 3 Craig -- she's an aviation bosun's mate," Gilday said. "She has been into the fire seven times. She was getting ready to go in for the eighth time, and to hear her talk about her preparedness for this incident, the fact that the training that she had in the Navy since boot camp, where it's an absolute priority that every sailor and that every officer be able to fight fires … that that training set the foundation for the way she operated."
Gilday said the fire could not have been in a worse part of the ship, with wind off the bay playing a role in its spread.
The admiral detailed the next steps in the process, which would begin with a series of synchronized investigations. The first will involve safety, led by Naval Sea Systems command. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service will probe the blaze as well, to "make sure there's no malfeasance at the root of the fire," Gilday said. And there will be a command investigation to determine whether procedures were followed and whether, in fact, the correct procedures were in place, and if the steps taken after the fire were the correct ones.
With so many of those on board based in San Diego, Gilday also talked about how the home-ported sailors were reacting to the fire on the flattop.
"For the sailors on board the Bonhomme Richard, it's a gut punch," Gilday replied to a question from NBC 7's Melissa Adan, gesturing at a hat placed on a nearby table. "So there's sailors at home, they identify with that ship, right? With these [USS Bonhomme Richard] ball caps, they mean something. The names of those ships mean something to those sailors. As you said, this is their home. This is where they're gonna fight from, right, if they have to go to sea? And so for every one of them, it's a personal loss. And so right, now, they're dealing with the heat of the moment ... but we're keeping a close eye on them."
On Thursday, Rear Adm. Philip E. Sobeck called the last 24 hours of the firefight aboard the amphibious assault ship “amazing," with the fire reaching up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the vessel.
The ship also shifted and tilted toward the pier late Wednesday under the weight of the water that had been dumped on it, forcing a brief evacuation of sailors.
On Thursday, it listed in the opposite direction, but Sobeck, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said the ship was stable and “survivable," though it will take time to assess the damage.
“The ship can be repaired, whether or not it will be repaired, that will be determined," he said.
It could cost an estimated $4 billion to replace the ship if it is deemed un-salvageable.
The Navy announced the fire was completely knocked out Thursday afternoon.
While the flames were out, the heat remained, so sailors were undertaking the “painstaking" process of inspecting every space to ensure there were no smoldering spots that could flare up on the 840-foot (255-meter) ship, Sobeck said. They also intended to carefully remove 1,500 bucket-loads of water dumped from helicopters to ensure the change in weight does not throw off the ship's balance.
The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost $250 million when the fire broke out Sunday. About 160 sailors had moved on board, and all were safely evacuated.
The Navy investigation will examine various possibilities of what might have sparked the blaze in the ship's lower storage area, where cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies were stored. It also will look at what caused two explosions on board after the blaze was reported.
Officials have said no foul play was s suspected and the blasts could have been from pressure building up inside the ship.
The fire traveled upward to the well deck — a wide hangar-type area — and took off from there. The difficulty fighting the flames was compounded because there was scaffolding, along with other equipment and debris in the way of firefighters. In addition, one of the ship’s fire suppression systems was deactivated because of the maintenance project.
More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation since Sunday.
The Navy has a history of bringing back to life warships that have been badly damaged by enemy attacks, but it is rare that vessels that have burned extensively from non-combat-related fires can be rebuilt so they are battle-ready, according to experts.
The amphibious assault ships are among the few in the U.S. fleet that can act as a mini aircraft carrier.
Even if the Bonhomme Richard is ultimately repaired, it will likely be out of operation for years.
“There’s no doubt there will be an impact,” Sobeck said, adding that “we can fill those gaps.”
This week the Navy commissioned its newest amphibious assault ship — the USS Tripoli — in an low-key administrative ceremony in Mississippi after the public ceremony was cancelled to avoid gatherings that could spread the coronavirus.
It’s slated to head to San Diego later this summer.
NBC 7 contributed to this report.