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Miami fire probe will take at least 3 weeks

Jun. 1, 2012 - 11:40AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 1, 2012 - 11:40AM  |  
Fire out aboard attack submarine Miami
Fire out aboard attack submarine Miami: The fire on board a nuclear-powered submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is out. (WCSH-TV, May 25, 2012)
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Investigators are continuing their work to determine the cause of the fire that burned through the fore end of the nuclear submarine Miami over the night of May 23-24.

The conflagration, which struck while the sub was in drydock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, burned for nearly 10 hours but, according to the Navy, did not endanger the vessel's nuclear reactor.

Shipyard workers returned to work on the ship Tuesday, shipyard spokesperson Deb White said.

The effort to fix the cause and assess the damage to Miami is expected to take about three weeks, White said in a news release issued Wednesday.

Several Navy investigations already are underway, said Naval Sea Systems Command 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 Thursday.

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 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 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, La Jolla and San Francisco, are scheduled to be converted to the MTS role when they're decommissioned in 2015. 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, Miami could become the first ship lost in a U.S. naval shipyard since the 19th century.

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