Published May 25. 2012 1:00PM Updated May 25. 2012 11:45PM
Kittery, Maine (AP) — Even before the Navy completed its first damage assessment, the severity of a fire that swept through a nuclear-powered submarine in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard triggered questions about whether the USS Miami can be salvaged.
The USS Miami's nuclear propulsion was spared from the intense blaze but some forward compartments including living quarters, command and control, and torpedo room suffered extensive damage, officials said Thursday.
The Navy was unable to complete a formal assessment Thursday but the damage was severe enough to raise questions about whether costly repairs would make sense for the 22-year-old Los Angeles-class attack submarine.
"The duration of the fire suggests extensive damage that could render the vessel useless. These submarines were designed decades ago. So they're no longer state of the art," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute. "If this vessel returns to service, I will be amazed."
Working in the submarine's favor is the fact that workers had removed some equipment and gutted part of the vessel during the retrofit, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine after meeting with the shipyard commander.
Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, commander of Submarine Group Two in Groton, Conn., where the USS Miami is based, told reporters on Thursday that it was premature to say whether the submarine could be salvaged.
If it's scrapped, it would mean the loss of a ship that cost about $900 million at the time to build. The U.S. Navy's newest attack submarines, the Virginia-class, are even more expensive at about $2.6 billion apiece.
The fire broke out Wednesday evening while the Miami was on a 20-month stay at the shipyard for an overhaul, and it took firefighters from more than a dozen departments until Thursday morning to douse the fire, described as intense and smoky.
Pingree described it as a "hot scary mess."
"It takes a lot of guts to into a burning building. But the idea of going into a submarine full of hot toxic smoke _ that's real courage," she said.
Two crew members, three shipyard firefighters and two civilian firefighters were hurt, but their injuries were minor, officials said.
Officials were waiting Thursday to begin venting smoke and noxious fumes so workers go inside the submarine to assess damage.
Workers had to let fire-damaged compartments cool enough for fresh air to be safely introduced without risk of another fire.
There were no details on the cause of the fire, but Breckenridge promised that there will be a thorough investigation.
Firefighters isolated the flames so they would not spread to nuclear propulsion spaces at the rear of the submarine. There was nuclear fuel on board the sub, but the reactor has been shut down for two months and was unaffected.
The rear compartments including the nuclear propulsion unit remained habitable, and crew members never left that part of the sub during the fire, Breckenridge said.
Nonetheless, the blaze was stubborn.
"The fire spread to spaces within the submarine that were difficult to access, presenting a challenging situation for initial responders. But they persevered in incredible heat and smoke conditions, demonstrating exceptional courage," the admiral said.
Residents reported hearing sirens from fire trucks and ambulances throughout the night, and the smoke spread over the area.
"It smelled like plastic burning," said Janet Howe of Kittery, who lives three-quarters-of-a-mile from the shipyard.
Reporters were not allowed onto the base to see the submarine Thursday. But Pingree and others who viewed the vessel said there were no outward signs of damage, because the fire was contained inside the 360-foot-long hull.
It was unclear how many people were aboard the vessel or what type of work was being done when the fire started. The submarine, commissioned in 1990, has a crew of 13 and 120 enlisted personnel. It arrived at the shipyard March 1.