Marine killed, 2 injured and 8 still missing from sinking vessel off of OC coast

 ocregister.com  08/01/2020 09:13:54   Erika I. Ritchie | eritchie@scng.com and Alma Fausto | afausto@scng.com | Orange County Register

Authorities continued searching Friday, July 31, for seven U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy sailor who went missing during a training session off of the coast of San Clemente Island the day before that claimed the life of at least one service member.

“We’re still looking for them,” Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said during an afternoon press conference at Camp Pendleton about the missing.

At about 5:45 p.m. Thursday, an amphibious assault vehicle, or AAV, was carrying 15 Marines and one Navy sailor.

On land, the AAVs run on tracks. Troops always ride below deck. While in the water, the hatches are closed.

The vessel, built to hold 21 people, was 1,000 to 2,000 meters from the beach on the northwest corner of the island. It was among 13 AAVs and their crews that had spent the day on the island and were headed back to the USS Somerset.

Then the troubled AAV began taking on water, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman of the Marines. It is unclear why the water poured in.

Marines aboard the vessel put out a distress signal, and a nearby AAV rushed to its aid, scooping up eight of the Marines, floating in the water.

The troubled AAV ended up sinking to the ocean’s floor, 600 feet below the surface. Divers hadn’t been able to get to the sunken vessel yet, Osterman said.

Of the rescued eight, three were injured, with one dying at a hospital in La Jolla. Authorities had not released the Marine’s name.

The two other injured Marines, by Friday, had recovered enough to be transferred out of the intensive-care unit.

The Navy’s USS John Finn, three Navy helicopters, several smaller Navy vessels and a U.S. Coast Guard ship and helicopter were looking for the missing eight.

Officials are searching for eight missing U.S. Marines following a training mishap during a training exercise off the coast of San Clemente Island. (File Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident,” Col. Christopher Bronzi, the unit’s commanding officer, said in a statement. “I ask that you keep our Marines, sailors, and their families in your prayers as we continue our search.

San Clemente Island is about 50 miles west of Orange County and 20 miles south of Catalina Island.

The fatal training incident prompted Gen. Berger to put a halt to using AAVs in the water for training across the Corps.

We need to have time until we have a better picture of what happened, said Berger, who was already at Camp Pendleton to oversee a change-of-command and to look at training exercises.

Thursday’s training accident was the second in three years in which local Marines were injured or killed in an amphibious assault vehicle.

On Sept. 13, 2017, 14 Marines and a sailor were burned  several critically  when their AAV burst into flames following an explosion on Camp Pendleton when the vehicle hit an exposed gas line. Kyle Hansen, a corporal who has since medically retired from the Marine Corps, was among those in the vehicle that day.

“It hurts to see this,” he said on Friday about Thursday’s tragedy. “I hope we can have accountability for the Marines involved.”

  • Former San Clemente Mayor Wayne Eggleston lowers the U.S. flag to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, CA on Friday, July 31, 2020. A day earlier one Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed and several remained missing after an accident during training off San Clemente Island. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • USMC Commandant Gen. David Berger addresses the media during a press conference at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA on Friday, July 31, 2020. A day earlier one Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed and several remained missing after an accident during training off San Clemente Island. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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  • The U.S. flag was lowered to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, CA on Friday, July 31, 2020. A day earlier one Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed and several remained missing after an accident during training off San Clemente Island. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Former San Clemente Mayor Wayne Eggleston lowers the U.S. flag to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, CA on Friday, July 31, 2020. A day earlier one Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed and several remained missing after an accident during training off San Clemente Island. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Former San Clemente Mayor Wayne Eggleston looks back after lowering the U.S. flag to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, CA on Friday, July 31, 2020. A day earlier one Marine from Camp Pendleton was killed and several remained missing after an accident during training off San Clemente Island. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Tagen Schmidt, a veteran who was a corporal when severely burned in that 2017 accident as he helped other Marines escape, was horrified to hear of Thursday’s event.

“I think they should get rid of AAVs,” he said. “The fire extinguishers don’t work, and when you splash off the back of a ship you’re only supposed to be under for about eight seconds. They’re like a 30,000-pound tomb.”

He recalled when he and his crew were once under for 15 seconds and a Marine began to panic.

“It was pretty scary,” he said from his home in Wyoming. “They’re not completely waterproof. They are meant to float. They have a couple of holes on top with hatches. When they first come out, they drop down about 10 feet.”

Marines have procedures in place to get out. Typically, he said, that would mean stripping off gear.

“You’d just keep on your life jackets,” he said. “You only have seconds to push open the hatch, because if you get under three feet of water, it gets too heavy to push up and you wouldn’t be able to push the hatch open unless all the other doors are open.”

In San Clemente, Wayne Eggleston, a former mayor who spearheaded the creation of Semper Fi Park near the Pier Bowl, was saddened to hear of the latest event.

“It’s absolutely devastating,” he said, adding he was on his way to lower flags at the memorial park. “Those can be dangerous vehicles, especially if they (the personnel) don’t have sufficient training or (are) in unfamiliar terrain  it can result in tragic events.”

Friday night Marine officials announced all families of the Marines and sailor involved in Thursdays tragedy were notified.

In all, the search covered more than 200 nautical miles. That search has now turned to a recovery effort.

Staff writer Nathan Percy contributed to this report.

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