KITTERY, Maine (AP) — Those who have spent time on Navy submarines will tell you that few combustible materials are aboard. But don't tell that to the firefighters who rushed to the USS Miami when a blaze swept through the billion-dollar nuclear-powered submarine.
"It's like going into a chimney," said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard firefighter David Funk, who described insulation and wiring fueling a smoky fire that became hot enough for aluminum to burst into flames.
On Friday, two days after the blaze began, workers at the shipyard finished pumping fresh air into the fire-damaged sub, allowing Navy investigators to enter to begin the first damage assessment. It remains to be seen whether the submarine can be salvaged.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, both members of the Armed Services Committee, visited the shipyard Friday and met with its commander. They thanked a small contingent of firefighters, including Funk, who battled the blaze as the sub's metal hull trapped the heat inside.
Three Navy teams were dispatched to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to investigate the incident, the senators told reporters.
The blaze started early Wednesday night at the shipyard where the sub was being overhauled. A handful of shipyard workers were in the forward compartments where the fire began while the sub was in a dry dock, Collins said.
The fire wasn't extinguished until the next morning. More than 100 firefighters responded from more than a dozen agencies as far away as Groton, Conn., and South Portland.
Eric Wertheim, a U.S. Naval Institute author, characterized the USS Miami fire as a financial disaster, with the potential loss of a submarine that cost $900 million to build, but not a true disaster like the losses of the USS Scorpion and Thresher, nuclear subs that sank during peacetime with a loss of their crews.
"It's important to put it into perspective," Wertheim said. "It could've been a lot worse."
The USS Miami fire damaged the torpedo room, crew quarters and command and control areas in the front of the submarine, but the nuclear propulsion components at the back of the sub weren't harmed.
One defense analyst suggested that the repairs would be so costly that the 22-year-old sub would be scrapped, a scenario that would be similar to the USS Bonefish, a diesel-electric sub decommissioned and scrapped after a fire at sea in 1988.