U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree climbed down into the blackened confines of the USS Miami on Monday at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, taking stock of the damage caused by last month’s fire on the nuclear submarine.

“You could see a tremendous number of hanging wires, a couple of components where the glass on the front had completely melted,” she said. “It was clear the heat had been quite intense.”

Despite such extensive damage, officials expressed optimism that the $900 million submarine will be repaired rather than scrapped.

The water had been removed from the vessel and most of the debris had been cleaned up, but the smell of the fire lingered Monday, said Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the shipyard in Kittery.

The USS Miami was at the shipyard for a 20-month overhaul when its interior caught fire on the evening of May 23. The fire burned for 10 hours, damaging the sub’s control room, torpedo room and crew quarters. The metal hull trapped heat, turning the 360-foot-long vessel into a superheated oven.

Now, workers are anxious about what the Navy will decide to do with the sub.

“Navy officials at this point tell me it’s unlikely the Miami will be scrapped, but we won’t know for sure until the investigation is finished in the next two or three weeks,” Pingree said in a prepared statement after going inside. “It was also great to hear that it’s unlikely that the ship would be moved to another shipyard for repairs.”

Pingree, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, donned a protective white suit and was escorted by the shipyard commander, Capt. Bryant Fuller, and USS Miami Cmdr. Roger Meyer to the control room. She said it appeared badly damaged.

“Luckily, a lot of the major pieces had been removed” before the fire, she said. “Some of the complex equipment had been taken off the ship.”

Pingree later visited the propulsion area, including where the nuclear reactor is located, as Navy officials sought to assure her that the fire did no damage there, she said.

The Navy has not reported the cause of the fire and is assessing the damage before deciding whether to repair the submarine or decommission it, Pingree said. A key question is how much the fire damaged the hull’s integrity, something Navy engineers are testing.

The military’s legal arm, the Judge Advocate General Corps, will determine 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.

“They have a lot of experts looking over the ship right now, both to evaluate the damage and the cause of the fire, but also looking at potential rebuilding strategies,” Pingree said.

Part of the equation for the Navy is the cost of repairs versus the importance of the submarine to the fleet. Pingree said Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, told her last week that the service doesn’t want to lose the sub because the size of the fleet has declined.

That’s welcome news to the 4,500 civilian employees who work to overhaul submarines. Decommissioning the sub would involve less work than continuing the overhaul.

“Our intent is to get that boat back to the fleet intact and operational,” said Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, the union representing many of the shipyard’s workers. “A lot of the work has already been started up again. We’re going ahead with the overhaul.”

O’Connor said the workers could take parts from the USS Memphis, another Los Angeles-class submarine, which is being decommissioned at the shipyard and was one week away from being hauled to another yard to be recycled when the fire occurred.

“It is a New England thing,” he said of the willingness to grab parts off one boat to keep another going. “We have a pride and work sense and work ethic.”

The shipyard’s work force is ideally suited to repair the submarine, McCoy told Pingree on Friday. McCoy was commander of the shipyard from 2001 to 2004.

“He said, without my prompting, that there’s a lot of ingenious workers with the kind of skills you need when you’re rebuilding a ship like this, that no longer is being constructed,” Pingree said. “Some of the parts, you have to rebuild.”

If the submarine is decommissioned, there will be work similar to that being done on the Memphis, she said.

McCoy told Pingree that the Navy does not anticipate layoffs at the shipyard, she said. There is a shortage of skilled workers in the trades needed at the shipyard, and the Navy is now bringing people from other parts of the country to fill some of those jobs.

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

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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