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Congresswoman Tours Fire-Damaged Sub

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(Photo courtesy WBZ-TV)

(Photo courtesy WBZ-TV)

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By DAVID SHARP, Associated Press

KITTERY, Maine (AP) _ There are charred wires, melted glass and soot throughout the forward part of a nuclear-powered submarine that caught fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and it remains to be seen if the sub can be repaired, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Monday.

One of the determining factors is the hull condition, and the Navy will have to perform tests to make sure the fire didn’t affect its integrity, Pingree said after a tour of the USS Miami.

If the submarine is able to be repaired, another sub that was decommissioned last year and is now at the shipyard could be used for spare parts, she said.

“The real question centers on whether we can bring this sub back into service again,” Pingree said. “They’re very busy trying to come up with an estimate. They’ve removed a lot of debris and are getting down to what the nature of the damage is.”

Based in Connecticut, the $900 million Los Angeles-class submarine was in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for an overhaul when a fire broke out on May 23.

Firefighters said insulation and wiring fueled the fire that they battled for 10 hours, with firefighting reinforcements coming from as far as away as Boston and New London, Conn. The metal hull trapped heat, turning the 360-foot-long sub into a superheated oven.

Workers began an assessment and cleanup last week, and Pingree on Monday became the first member of Congress to get a brief look inside when she toured the fire-damaged control room as well as the engine room, which was not affected by the fire.

Multiple investigations are under way.

The military’s legal arm, the Judge Advocate General Corps, will sort out what caused the fire, while a separate investigative team is looking at safety procedures. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is looking into whether there was any criminal conduct.

The USS Miami was three months into a 20-month overhaul when the fire broke out. If the sub is scrapped, the workers would lose out on many months of work.

The Navy has said it hopes the vessel can be repaired.

If the submarine is repairable, the USS Memphis could be tapped for parts, Pingree said. The Los Angeles-class attack submarine, the oldest active submarine in the U.S. Navy before it was decommissioned last year, has been at the shipyard for 16 months as part of the deactivation process.

Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, said there’s no doubt that the USS Miami can be repaired, but the bigger question is whether it’s worth the cost.

Working against the USS Miami is its age. The submarine was commissioned 22 years ago, making it one of the older of the Navy’s 54 Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines.

Working in the sub’s favor was that the fire was confined to only part of the sub, sensitive equipment had been removed and the nuclear propulsion was unaffected.

The Navy had more than 90 submarines in the late 1980s, and it’s projected there will be only 44 in 2020, Pingree said.

“That makes this more critical. The commanders at sea are calling for these ships and we can’t build them fast enough,” she said. “That makes me think they’ll do everything they can to return this ship to service.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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