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 that went into the 360-foot-long ship had only a few minutes to fight the fire before pulling out to be replaced by others with fresh oxygen tanks.

They said it took time and effort just to navigate the narrow maze of submarine hallways to reach the forward section of the ship, where the fire burned throughout Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

The hallways are so narrow that 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 other crews.

“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 and wasn’t extinguished for 10 hours.

Joining the shipyard’s 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 has just 39 firefighters. With local fire departments helping out, he said, about 100 firefighters dealt with the blaze on the Miami.

Each crew of municipal firefighters was accompanied by a shipyard firefighter, who helped them find their way through the darkened sub, he said.

“Our hats are off to them,” Whitehouse said. “They were our saviors.”

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

The Navy also said the sub’s weapons were not on board. The Miami is a Los Angeles-class submarine, an attack vessel that 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 that’s scheduled to take about 20 months. The work is being done in one of the shipyard’s dry docks.

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

Fire crews on the deck fought those flames, he said, while crews inside the submarine rotated 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 was the South Portland Fire Department, which brought in 1,600 gallons of firefighting foam in case Navy commanders opted to flood the submarine with foam to extinguish the fire.

Whitehouse said “we got into a rhythm” during the hours it took to fight the fire, and eventually the flames were pushed ahead of the forward hatch, so crews could drop a hose down from there. It was a crucial step.

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

Tice said the shipyard’s firefighters constantly train for ship fires, “but certainly this is the most extreme” conditions they have 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 before the fire as part of the overhaul. 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 can 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 Maine’s congressional delegation praised the firefighters’ efforts.

“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 she made 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.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]