PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Seacoast-area firefighters received national recognition Monday for their part in helping to extinguish a fire on board a nuclear submarine at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen presented local firefighters with an official commendation from the U.S. Senate Monday morning at a ceremony held in Prescott Park. They also conveyed their personal gratitude to the firefighters, who risked personal injury while responding to the May 23 emergency.
"Listening to the stories of what was involved in fighting that fire -- it's amazing," Shaheen said.
More than 100 firefighters were called to the scene after a fire erupted in the forward area of the USS Miami, a Los Angeles-class submarine that was in the midst of scheduled overhaul. Emergency responders from at least 21 Seacoast-area communities provided aid; others traveled from Logan International Airport in Boston, and from as far away as Groton, Conn., to assist.
Equipped with oxygen tanks, they took turns descending two stories into the unlit, smoke-filled bowels of the ship to push back the flames. Most had no prior experience on board a submarine. The fire continued to burn for more than 10 hours before it was extinguished. Seven firefighters suffered minor injuries during the operation.
On Monday, Shaheen thanked the firefighters for their "professionalism, skill, courage and heroism."
Ayotte said the response was "incredible," but also serves as a reminder of the real-life dangers that firefighters face every day.
Among those who were honored Monday were the fire departments of Dover, Greenland, Hampton, Newington, Lee, New Castle, Portsmouth, Rollinsford, Rye and Somersworth, as well as emergency responders stationed at Pease International Tradeport and paramedics from American Medical Response.
Lt. Tom McQuade was on hand Monday to receive the commendation on behalf of the Newington Fire Department, which supplied a fire engine, six firefighters and a trailer equipped with fire suppression foam during the incident. McQuade remembered firefighters were disoriented inside the cramped, dark quarters of the submarine
"It's definitely a lot different than a structure fire," he said.
Rye firefighters Mike Hirtle and Lt. Charles Gallant helped to pull a fire hose into the ship after they were called to the scene. The men were paired together with two crew members from the USS Miami, who guided them through the submarine.
While they were on board, Hirtle suffered first- and second-degree burns on both arms. The 42-year-old, who attended Monday's ceremony with his 14-year-old son, Erik, said he has no memory of how he sustained the injury. Gallant stepped in to help carry him up a staircase to one of the exits after he was injured.
"He was probably five feet below me and I couldn't see him," Gallant remembered.
Gallant said the Rye Fire Department training includes drills in which firefighters pull an injured person up through a hole, but the experience was much different inside the confined spaces of the ship.
Although firefighters haven't trained for a submarine emergency, Gallant said they do prepare to be in harm's way.
"I guess my feeling is it's what we signed up to do," Gallant said. "It's part of the job."
The Senate adopted a resolution on June 7 recognizing the efforts of firefighters, emergency first responders and crew members of the USS Miami crew in helping to fight the fire. The resolution commends the "service of all those who successfully contained the fire, minimized damage to the submarine, and ensured there was no loss of life," according to a Senate announcement.
Sponsors included Shaheen, Ayotte and Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Scott Brown, R-Mass., Susan Collins, R-Maine, John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
"Their exemplary efforts during those 10 hours in tight quarters filled with noxious smoke and searing heat, while minimizing damage and ensuring there was no loss of life, receives our unending praise and commendation," reads the joint statement released by the sponsors last month.
The U.S. Navy has convened a special investigative panel to probe the circumstances behind the fire on board the USS Miami in May.
Investigators believe the fire was started by a "heat source" that was sucked into a shop vacuum, igniting the debris within.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service