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Confusion and delays plagued response to deadly rollover accident in South Korea

A photo of Spc. Nicholas Panipinto is displayed during a memorial service inside the Warrior Chapel at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 29, 2020

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Ordered to conduct a road test, the pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles pulled out of the motor pool and turned right.

That was the first mistake, according to an investigation into the Nov. 6, 2019, rollover that killed Spc. Nicholas Panipinto, 20, and injured four others on Camp Humphreys.

The nearly 28-ton tracked vehicles should have gone left toward the base’s vehicle wash rack, turned around and returned to their starting point, investigators found. That was the approved road test route relayed to the company by its executive officer via WhatsApp more than a week earlier.

Instead, they ended up on a multipurpose training range and began making two loops.

Panipinto, of Bradenton, Fla., enlisted in the Army on Jan. 9, 2018, and completed training as an infantryman at Fort Benning, Ga. From there, he joined Arrowhead Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, which traveled to South Korea as part of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team for a nine-month rotation beginning in June 2019.

Kimberly Weaver said her son had only recently had become a driver, didn’t have the proper license to drive a Bradley, had received only six hours of hands-on training and had no classroom instruction.

The 130-page investigation, completed at the end of December, said the primary causes of the accident were speeding and a corrective oversteer. It also said the convoy had not been authorized to enter the training field, which was already being used by another unit.

But details in the sworn statements and other information obtained by Weaver show a series of training and medical response lapses, including a medevac helicopter that went to the wrong place.

Three soldiers punished

The Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division has moved to oust the company commander, the platoon leader and the Bradley commander from the Army, according to a slide provided to Weaver when she met with the combat team commander Col. Kevin Capra on Aug. 23.

The three “received letters of reprimand and were initiated for involuntary separation,” it said. “In addition, the Bradley commander received non-judicial punishment and was reduced in rank.”

All 37 companies in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team were ordered to reassess their driver’s training programs, to brief battalion commanders on the status of those programs and to ensure the programs are enforced to Army standards.

The slide also said U.S. Forces Korea, the main command on the divided peninsula, has ordered an examination into emergency medical care on all of its bases.

However, the changes are not enough for Weaver, who says her son’s death had been preventable and the soldiers being punished are being used as scapegoats.

“This whole thing has just so many problems on so many different levels,” Weaver said Saturday in a phone interview. “Why are these three lower-level unit soldiers being thrown under the bus while the higher-ups are not being accountable when all these failures happened under their watch.”

Weaver also received a copy of the emergency room report and the redacted Army investigation, which she shared with Stars and Stripes.

Capra “did say that none of this was Nicholas’ fault. The commander said he was never supposed to be behind the wheel to begin with,” she said.

In a separate statement, Capra called the deaths of Panipinto and Spc. Octavious Lakes Jr., who was killed in a separate Bradley rollover in January in California, “terrible tragedies.”

The investigation had “resulted in non-judicial punishment for those found at fault for actions that contributed to the incident,” he said, without providing more details.

Capra expressed confidence that lessons learned from the accidents would ultimately help make training safer.

“As a result of these investigations, the unit increased its focus on driver's training; improving the quality, frequency and record keeping for the driver's training program to ensure all those operating combat vehicles were trained and licensed properly,” he said.

However, that was not the only problem. The road test was supposed to have been done the previous day in preparation for an upcoming gunnery exercise but apparently had to be pushed back. Senior leaders said in sworn statements that they didn’t know it had been planned and were caught by surprise when informed about the rollover.

Confusion and delays

The accident happened at about 2:30 pm during the second loop.

“The driver of A31, SPC Panipinto, conducted the left-hand turn and missed the paved road with his right side tracks,” the investigation said. “SPC Panipinto then continued to steer to the left, digging the right track into the soft dirt” and prompting the vehicle to roll over.

The exact speed couldn’t be determined, but investigators cited witness testimony and a simulation to place it at 17 to 40 miles per hour. The speed limit at the range is 6 to 15 mph. Weaver pointed out that some witnesses gave slower speeds.

Panipinto was trapped in the driver’s position with a severe head wound, two crew members were thrown from the vehicle and two others were stuck in the back. Other troops on the scene had to use a sledgehammer to break the lock on the rear escape hatch to get them out.

Meanwhile, the other Bradley was used to tip the crashed vehicle with tow chains so Panipinto could be pulled out.

Combat medics and civilian first-responders raced to the scene, many of them saying they literally ran or flagged down cars to hitch a ride on the vast base, which is in the rural area of Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. One rode a bicycle.

“There was some initial confusion amongst leadership as to the location of the accident — many personnel from the company initially moved toward the vehicle wash rack instead of the (training range)” according to the investigation summary.

The battalion surgeon and the other medics were praised for their efforts to treat Panipinto in an ambulance at the scene, but some testified that oxygen and suction supplies ran low and had to be replaced.

At one point, Panipinto was taken out of the ambulance on a stretcher to prepare for the airlift that was said to be about 10 minutes away. But the helicopter mistakenly went to the Rodriguez Live Fire Training Range near the border with North Korea, and the second was delayed by mechanical problems, witnesses said.

Camp Humphreys, which serves as the military’s main headquarters in South Korea and is the largest overseas U.S. base, had recently completed the construction of a new hospital, and the state-of-the-art facility was just over a week from fully opening.

Even after it opened, the Brian D. Allgood Community Hospital, which replaced an older facility that had been closed on the former main base in Seoul, is not equipped to treat trauma so those cases are sent to a nearby South Korean hospital.

“By the time he got to the ER, they gave him nine pints of blood and five pints of plasma,” Weaver said. “He was pretty much completely drained of fluid because it took two hours to get him to the hospital.”

Calls for reform

The rollover was one of an alarming number of training accidents that have prompted calls for reforms.

A Congressional Research Service report showed that 32% of active-duty military deaths between 2006 and 2018 were the result of accidents, while 16% were killed in action.

Earlier this month, Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican, called on the House Armed Services Committee to hold a public hearing on the issue. The House also passed an amendment to the defense budget authored by Buchanan that would require the Pentagon to examine emergency medical services at U.S. military bases.

Weaver said she also will continue to fight for changes to prevent future accidents from killing other soldiers like her son.

“He was my best friend and I can’t just let him go without doing something,” she said. “If we can do anything in his name to force change and save lives, then that’s what I have to do.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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