KITTERY — A vacuum cleaner has been identified as the source of a fire that caused about $400 million in damage to one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines.

Meanwhile, members of Maine’s Congressional delegation said the Navy has indicated to them that the Los Angeles class USS Miami will likely be repaired and that those repairs will be done at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

Deb White, spokesperson for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, announced Wednesday that preliminary findings by the Navy indicate the May 23 fire onboard the USS Miami started in a vacuum cleaner.

The vacuum cleaner – the make and size of machine is not being disclosed at this time – was used to clean worksites after crew shifts have been completed, White said. The machine, which was unplugged at the time of the fire, had been stored in an unoccupied space.

White said specific details as to how the fire started remain under investigation.

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she was told on Wednesday by the Navy that the USS Miami “can be repaired” at a cost of about $400 million.

A final decision on whether to move forward with repairs will be made by the end of next week, Snowe said.

But, Snowe said she is optimistic that the Navy will decide to repair the sub rather than replace it with a new Virginia-class submarine, which carries a pricetag of about $2.4 billion.

If the submarine is fixed, those repairs will in all likelihood take place in Kittery. But should the Navy should decide to build a new vessel, it would be built at a shipyard outside Maine, said Brandon Bouchard, Snowe’s spokesman.

“As Vice Admiral McCoy indicated to me while I toured Kittery-Portsmouth Naval Shipyard after the fire, the U.S. Navy intends to rebuild the USS Miami, and I agree that is precisely what the Navy should do,” Snowe said in a statement.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, reacted to Wednesday’s announcement by saying she is confident the submarine will be repaired by workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

“Chellie hasn’t spoken to anyone who doesn’t think the sub can’t be repaired,” added Willy Ritch, her spokesman.

“It is welcome news that the Navy appears committed to repairing the USS Miami at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement issued Wednesday night. Collins is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Firefighters at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and from the region responded to a fire onboard the USS Miami on the night of May 23. The fire burned until 3:30 a.m. the following day.

The fire caused heavy damage to the forward compartment of the submarine, which includes the crew’s living quarters, command and control spaces, and the torpedo room – there were no torpedos or other weapons on board at the time.

White said the Miami’s nuclear propulsion spaces were not affected by the fire. The vessel’s nuclear propulsion plant had been shut down for over two months while the Miami was being overhauled at the shipyard.

As part of Wednesday’s announcement, White indicated that it will cost the Navy an additional $40 million – over the $400 million estimate – if it choses to repair the Miami.

The additional costs represent what the impact of repairing the Miami will have on the Navy’s construction and repair schedule across all Naval shipyards. White said the Navy may also need to contract some work out to the private sector.

White said the $400 million is still a rough repair estimate because Navy engineers are in the process of conducting a full technical assessment, including internal and external hull surveys.
That assessment should be completed next week.

“While the Navy’s rough estimate to repair the submarine is $400 million, we won’t know an exact figure until the assessment is completed,” Collins said. “As a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, I will work to help identify the funding that will be needed.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at [email protected]