By Shawn Raymundo
UPDATE—2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4: The remains of the seven U.S. Marines and one Navy sailor who went messing after a training exercise “mishap” occurred last week have been located, Marine officials announced on Tuesday, Aug. 4.
According to I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), officials found the sunken amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) that was carrying the missing service members on July 30, when the craft began to take on water during a return trip to the USS Somerset from San Clemente Island.
Their bodies, I MEF said, were identified inside the AAV using underwater remotely operated video systems that the U.S. Navy’s Undersea Rescue Command had provided.
Eight other service members, who all had been assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and aboard the AAV at the time of the accident, were recovered last week. One of those Marines, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Guillermo Perez of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead on the scene.
Two others were found in critical condition and were airlifted to the Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, San Diego. One of the injured, an AAV crewmember, is now in stable condition, Marine officials announced on Sunday, Aug. 2.
The U.S. Marines, with the assistance of the Navy and Coast Guard, conducted a search and rescue operation to find the missing marines and sailor. However, after a 40-hour search, officials called off the rescue mission on Saturday, Aug. 1, announcing that the service members were presumed dead.
According to the latest update from I MEF, the Navy has expedited its efforts to recover the remains of the deceased Marines and sailor, as well as raise the AAV, which sank to a depth of about 385 feet.
“The equipment to properly and safely perform the recovery from the sea floor will be in place at the end of this week, and a dignified transfer of our Marines and Sailor will occur as soon as possible after the conclusion of recovery operations,” I MEF said in a press release.
The incident remains under investigation, according to Marine officials.
UPDATE—11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 3: The seven U.S. Marines and one Navy sailor who have been missing since Thursday, July 30, following a training exercise “mishap” near San Clemente Island, are now presumed dead as Marine officials over the weekend turned search and rescue efforts into a find and recover operation.
After a 40-hour search for the eight missing service members, the rescue mission was called off Saturday, Aug. 1, with 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Ready Group officials determining that a successful rescue was unlikely “given the circumstances of the incident.”
“It is with a heavy heart, that I decided to conclude the search and rescue effort,” Col. Christopher Bronzi, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) commanding officer, said in a statement. “The steadfast dedication of the Marines, Sailors, and Coast Guardsmen to the persistent rescue effort was tremendous.”
The eight 15th MEU service members, along with eight others, were aboard an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) that sank to the bottom of the ocean near the island last Thursday afternoon.
While heading back to the USS Somerset at the end of the routine training exercise, the crew signaled to two accompanying AAV units and a safety boat that their craft started taking on water more than 1,000 meters from the shore.
Eight of the Marines had been recovered, one of whom, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Guillermo Perez of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead on the scene. He was later airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego.
Two of those recovered Thursday were found in critical condition and were also airlifted to the Scripps hospital in La Jolla. One of the injured, an AAV crewmember, is now in stable condition, Marine officials announced Sunday, Aug. 2.
Three of the service members presumed dead—Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, 18; Lance Cpl. Marco Barranco, 21; and Cpl. Cesar Villanueva, 21—were native to Southern California, according to the I Marine Expeditionary Force.
The other five service members—Pfc. Evan Bath, 19; U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21; Cpl. Wesley Rodd, 23; and Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, 19—originated from Northern California and other states including Wisconsin, Oregon and Texas.
The search operation encompassed more than 1,000 square nautical miles of the Southern California coast near San Clemente Island and included the use of several air and watercraft with help from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.
“Our thoughts and prayers have been, and will continue to be with our Marines’ and Sailor’s families during this difficult time,” Bronzi said in the statement. “As we turn to recovery operations we will continue our exhaustive search for our missing Marines and Sailor.”
The incident has been under investigation and was still underway as of Sunday, according to the Marines. In the meantime, all waterborne operations training with AAVs has been suspended.
UPDATE—4:30 p.m. Friday, July 31: Search and rescue operations for seven missing U.S. Marines and one Navy sailor off San Clemente Island continued Friday afternoon, July 31, following a training accident that resulted in the death of one service member, Marine officials from Camp Pendleton said.
The eight service members, all of whom were assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were among 16 aboard an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) that began to take on water during a routine training exercise near the island on Thursday afternoon, July 30.
“We were able to recover eight of the Marines and still we’re continuing rescue operations, the SAR (search and rescue) operations for the other seven marines and one sailor who have not yet been found,” Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, said during a press conference from Camp Pendleton on Friday. “Our heartfelt thoughts go out to the family members.”
One of the recovered Marines was pronounced dead after being taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. The decedent’s name will not be released for 24 hours after the next of kin has been notified, officials said.
Of the seven others who have been recovered, two sustained injuries and were taken to area hospitals. While not wanting to get into specific medical conditions, Osterman said the two injured service members are currently in stable condition.
According to Osterman, the service members aboard the AAV were on their way back to a ship after completing a day of training on the island. While more than 1,000 meters from the shore, the crew signaled to two accompanying AAV units and a safety boat that their craft started taking on water.
“They were basically completing training, they had already come ashore the day prior and had been conducting training operations ashore as well as afloat, so they were actually on their way from the island back to the ship,” Osterman said. “I don’t know the exact distances but over 1,000 meters offshore, it was quite a distance before it was noticed that they were in trouble.”
The craft, he said, is believed to have sunk completely as the “adjacent AAVs watched it go down.”
“We know precisely where it went down because the other units were literally right there with it, so they marked where it is,” Osterman said.
According to Osterman, the vehicles, which weigh 26 tons, can hold 21 personnel in the back with up to 285 pounds of gear each, as well as three crew members. The vehicles, he continued, have three water hatches for the crew and two very large troop hatches in the back.
Osterman noted that with half of the personnel recovered so far, the members aboard were able to egress and that their flotation devices had worked. He stressed, however, that until an investigation is complete, Marine officials won’t know the full details related to those aspects of the accident.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger said an investigation is being conducted, but the priority is the search and rescue operations, and making sure the families of the missing members are being taken care of.
“After the investigation is done, we’ll see, as always, if there are any trends and linkages,” Berger said. “But the first step is to conduct a search and rescue, and take care of families.”
Berger also said that all water water-borne operations training for the AAVs have been paused for the time being.
“Once we determine what the cause was, then we’ll make a second decision to recontinue,” Berger said. “But this is to ensure, out of an abundance of caution, that we take the time, give the time to recovery and figure out what actually happened.”
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are assisting in the search and rescue efforts. According to Marine officials, the USS John Finn, three U.S. Navy MH-60 helicopters and multiple small boats from the USS Makin Island, USS Somerset, and USS San Diego, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Forrest Rednour and a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Sector San Diego are aiding in the operation.
Below is the initial story published at 10:29 a.m. on Friday, July 31.
A U.S. Marine has died and eight other service members from Camp Pendleton are missing after a training accident involving an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) occurred off San Clemente Island on Thursday, July 30, Marine officials said.
As of early Friday morning, July 31, search and rescue teams with the help of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were still working to locate the eight service members, all of whom were assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, according the I Marine Expeditionary Force.
According to Marine officials, the accident occurred during a routine training exercise at around 5:45 p.m. on Thursday, when the AAV, which was carrying 15 Marines and one Navy sailor, started to take on water.
1 Marine has died, 8 service members remain missing and 2 were injured after an AAV mishap July 30 off the coast of Southern California. All are assigned to the 15th MEU. Search and rescue efforts are still underway with support from the Navy and Coast Guard.
— I MEF (@1stMEF) July 31, 2020
As of Friday morning, eight of the service members had been found, one of whom was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead. The decedent’s name will not be released for 24 hours after the next of kin has been notified, officials said.
Two other service members who were rescued sustained injuries and were taken to area hospitals, “where one was listed in critical condition and the other in stable condition,” I MEF said.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident. I ask that you keep our Marines, Sailors, and their families in your prayers as we continue our search,” Col. Christopher Bronzi, 15th MEU commanding officer, said in a statement.
The incident is under investigation.
This is a developing story.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.