A fireman walks off the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Miami the morning after an intense fire burned out the submarine's forward interior. U.S. Navy officials are working to determine if the vessel is worth repairing. (U.S. Navy)
Investigators are continuing their work to determine the cause of the fire that burned through the fore end of the U.S. submarine Miami over the night of May 23-24. The conflagration, which struck while the sub was in drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine, burned for nearly 10 hours but, according to the Navy, did not endanger the vessel’s nuclear reactor.
Shipyard workers, said shipyard spokesperson Deb White, returned to work on the ship on May 29.
The effort to fix the cause and assess the damage to the Miami is expected to take approximately three weeks, White said in a May 30 press release.
Several Navy investigations already are underway, said Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) spokesman Chris Johnson, including a safety review, a Judge Advocate General investigation and a NAVSEA technical review of the submarine’s condition — standard probes for this kind of incident.
The 22-year-old Miami was about two months into a scheduled 18-month engineering overhaul at the shipyard. The ship, planned for a service life of about 30 years, is scheduled to be decommissioned in fiscal 2020.
Navy authorities so far are declining to speculate about possible causes of the fire or whether the submarine can be repaired.
“Once all the inspections and reviews are complete, the Navy will take the time to look at every possible scenario in regards to the ship’s future,” Johnson said May 31.
Unofficial reports indicate the fire burned at very high temperatures inside the ship.
Temperature “readings on the hull during the fire were very high,” said one source with knowledge of the incident. “It was indicative of an incredible fire on the inside.”
Although NAVSEA chief Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy proclaimed shortly after the fire that the submarine would be repaired, speculation has been widespread that the Miami’s service life is over. The intense fire could have buckled hull frames or weakened the pressure hull, and the cost of repairs could be prohibitive.
If the ship can’t be returned to service, she might be useful as a moored training ship (MTS) for the Navy’s nuclear power school at Charleston, S.C., where the former ballistic missile submarines Daniel Webster and Sam Rayburn are slated for replacement. Two Los Angeles-class submarines, the La Jolla and San Francisco, are scheduled to be converted to the MTS role when they’re decommissioned in 2015. The Miami, with her reactor and machinery sections intact, might be swapped for one of those.
If the submarine cannot be returned to active service, it would become the first submarine and the first nuclear ship lost through a U.S. shipyard accident. And while two ships — the transport Lafayette (the former French liner Normandie) in 1942, and the minesweeper Avenge in 1970 — have been lost in commercial shipyard fires, the Miami could become the first ship lost in a U.S. naval shipyard since the 19th century.