The first member of Congress to go inside the USS Miami since it caught fire says she saw charred wires dangling overhead and glass panels that had melted off equipment.
Everything was covered in soot, and the intense smell of smoke still hung in the air from the May 23 fire, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said.
"It looked just as eerie and damaged as you would imagine after a fire burned for 10 hours inside a small space," Pingree, D-Maine, said in an interview after the brief tour of the Groton-based attack submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
But despite the damage, Pingree was hopeful the sub can be saved. A team from Electric Boat was at the shipyard Monday to help the Navy assess the damage.
Pingree said she would support a congressional appropriation to pay for the repairs if that's the route the Navy chooses. She said she plans to encourage the Navy to upgrade the equipment for firefighters at the naval shipyards because some of the safety gear was too large for the tight spaces.
The Miami (SSN 755) was in a dry dock at the shipyard for maintenance and upgrades when it caught fire at 5:41 p.m. May 23 and burned until 3:30 a.m. the next day. The investigation into the cause and damage assessment is expected to take about three weeks.
If there's a silver lining, Pingree said, it's that shipyard workers had taken much of the equipment out of the submarine before the fire so they could perform the maintenance.
A crucial factor in whether the repairs are feasible is the condition of the hull, Pingree said. She initially heard the Navy was encouraged by the early tests but she said no one knows for sure what the final assessment will show.
She said it's important to repair the Miami and build more attack submarines because the number in the fleet will drop below 48, the stated number required for missions, as the older Los Angeles-class submarines retire more quickly than they are replaced. The fleet is projected to hit a low of 39 in 2030.
Pingree said she thinks Congress will support paying for the repairs, "given the need to keep this ship in the fleet."
As she was leaving the Miami Monday morning, a contingent of Electric Boat employees was climbing aboard.
Robert Hamilton, a company spokesman, said a team went to the shipyard Monday at the Navy's request. He said the employees planned to stay one day to help evaluate the damage but could be available longer if necessary.
EB built the Los Angeles-class submarine for $900 million. It was commissioned at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton in 1990 and arrived at the Portsmouth shipyard in March for a 20-month overhaul.
The fire damaged the torpedo room, command and control spaces and berthing areas. The reactor had been shut down for more than two months at the time of the fire and the nuclear propulsion spaces were not affected, according to the Navy. No weapons were on board.
Pingree saw the engine room and reactor.
"A little smoke got in but it was completely sealed off and there looks to be absolutely no damage," she said.
The submarine was ventilated after the fire and shipyard workers were allowed to start the cleanup May 29. By the time Pingree visited, much of the debris had been removed.
The impact on the environment was limited because the fire was contained within the hull and the submarine is in the dry dock, according to the Navy. Oil on the floor of the dry dock caused a small sheen in the water adjacent to the dock. The shipyard used an oil containment boom and absorbent boom and cleaned the floor of the dock, the Navy said.
At the shipyard, Pingree also met with firefighters who helped extinguish the blaze. She praised them for their courage and listened to their thoughts on what worked well fighting the fire and what didn't. She said she learned about equipment on the market that would have been more practical.
"Even the size of their helmets was excessive for trying to get into those small spaces," said Pingree, who said she would encourage the Navy to approve a request for new equipment.
The Navy said in a response to a list of questions about the fire that it could not speculate on any courses of action until the investigation is complete.