KITTERY — Firefighters who confronted a blaze inside the nuclear submarine USS Miami encountered a dark, hellish atmosphere of intense heat and heavy smoke, two firefighters at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard said Thursday.

Assistant Fire Chief Glenn Whitehouse and firefighter Dan Tice said each crew sent into the 360-foot ship had only a few minutes to deal with the fire before they had to pull out and be replaced by others with fresh oxygen tanks.

They said it took time and effort just to navigate the narrow maze of submarine hallways in order to reach the forward section of the ship, where the fire was burning. The hallways were so narrow it was difficult for firefighters to pass each other. Then the heat and the dwindling oxygen supply in their air packs forced them to leave and be replaced by another crew.

“That’s why the guys were taking a beating,” Tice said. “We went through probably 75 shifts like that.”

Seven people, including firefighters and crew members, suffered minor injuries fighting the stubborn blaze, which was reported at 5:41 p.m. Wednesday but not extinguished for some 10 hours. Joining the shipyard firefighters were several municipal fire departments from New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Whitehouse said the shipyard’s fire crew numbers just 39 firefighters. With local fire departments helping out, he said there were about 100 firefighters dealing with the blaze on the Miami. Each crew of municipal firefighters was accompanied by a shipyard firefighter, to help them find their way through the darkened sub, he said.

“Our hats are off to them,” Whitehouse said. “If it weren’t for them … they were our saviors.”

Navy officials said the ship’s nuclear reactor, which is located closer to the rear of the vessel, was shut down and not in danger, but a crew remained on board to make sure that it stays secure.

The Navy also said the sub’s weapons were not on board. The Miami is a Los Angeles class submarine, an attack vessel which is typically equipped with Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes.

The $900 million sub, which carries a crew of 13 officers and 120 enlisted men, arrived at the shipyard on March 1 for an overhaul scheduled to take about 20 months. The work is being done in one of the shipyard’s drydocks.

Whitehouse said when he first arrived at the Miami, there was some light smoke coming out of the submarine and the ship’s crew had been dealing with the fire. He said his firefighters located the fire in the front of the sub and on the middle deck of the submarine’s three decks, but it quickly spread to the upper deck. At one point, flames were shooting out of the forward hatch.

Crews on the deck dealt with those flames, he said, while crews inside the submarine continued to rotate in and out. “It eats up a lot of time and energy and you can only advance so far,” Tice said.

Among the municipal crews on the scene was the South Portland Fire Department, which brought in 16,000 gallons of firefighting foam, to be used in case Navy commanders opted to flood the submarine with foam to extinguish the stubborn blaze.

It took hours to extinguish the blaze, but Whitehouse said, “we got into a rhythm” and eventually the flames were pushed forward ahead of the forward hatch, and crews were able to drop a hose down from there, which was a crucial step in controlling the fire.

Before that, they had to thread fire hoses through the narrow hallways.

Tice said the shipyard’s firefighters constantly train for ship fires “but certainly this is the most extreme” conditions encountered.

“It’s every emotion you can think of,” Whitehouse said. “You’re jacked.”

Navy officials won’t be able to enter the fire-damaged portion of the Miami for a few days to determine whether the submarine is salvageable, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who visited the shipyard Thursday.

Pingree said shipyard officials told her that many of the submarine’s critical systems had been removed as part of a lengthy overhaul prior to the fire. She praised firefighters for their courageous work.

“We can imagine how terrifying it is for a firefighter to go into a burning house, but this is a burning cylinder,” she said.

Pingree said Navy officials are pretty sure where the fire began but told her they still don’t know the cause. If the ship is able to be repaired, it’s in “a very good place” because the shipyard is one of the Navy’s leading submarine repair facilities, she said.

“That’s a $900 million piece of equipment that we need back on line,” Pingree said. “Hopefully, they can put it back together.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Other members of the state’s congressional delegation also praised the efforts of firefighters.

“I understand this was an incredibly challenging and dangerous fire to fight because the heat and smoke were so intense and, at times, firefighters were operating in total darkness,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Homeland Security and Armed Services committees.

Sen. Olympia Snowe highlighted the work ethic and teamwork of firefighters and shipyard workers in remarks delivered on the Senate floor.

“Moving forward, it is vital that the Navy and local authorities undertake a prompt investigation regarding the cause of this incident to make certain it does not happen again,” Snowe said.

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