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Eight missing service members presumed dead after amphibious vehicle accident off Calif. coast

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Rivera, a search and rescue swimmer assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, looks out of a U.S. Navy MH-60 Seahawk while conducting search and rescue relief operations following an AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle accident off the coast of Southern California, July 30, 2020.

MACKENZIE BINION/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 2, 2020

Eight service members are presumed dead, the Marine Corps said Sunday, as it called off a search and rescue operation three days after an accident off the coast of southern California.

Nine service members — including the seven missing Marines, one missing sailor and one other Marine — died Thursday after an assault amphibious vehicle sank during training more than a half-mile from San Clemente Island, the Marines said.

“It is with a heavy heart, that I decided to conclude the search and rescue effort,” said Col. Christopher Bronzi, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit commander. “The steadfast dedication of the Marines, Sailors, and Coast Guardsmen to the persistent rescue effort was tremendous.”

All next-of-kin have been informed, the Marines said. The Defense Department has not yet named the Marines involved. The Marines said efforts still are under way to recover the bodies of the troops.

All 15 Marines aboard the vehicle at the time were assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force.

The 15th MEU is based at Camp Pendleton.

Search and rescue efforts were supported the Navy and Coast Guard. The assault amphibious vehicle was operating in several hundred feet of water, which is too deep for divers, the Marines said Friday.

“Basically the adjacent assault amphibious vehicles watched it go down and, as I said, 26 tons … the assumption is it went all the way to the bottom,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, the outgoing commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, said at a Camp Pendleton news conference Friday.

Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, during the news briefing said he had directed the immediate suspension of water operations for all assault amphibious vehicles as a precaution until they determine what caused Thursday’s accident.

Berger also said every assault amphibious vehicle in the fleet was going to be inspected. Osterman said the Marines have more than 800 assault amphibious vehicles.

Assault amphibious vehicles are used for storming beaches and have been integral to Marine Corps missions since world War II. The current version of the vehicle is nearly 50 years old, but has had upgrades over the years. It was supposed to be replaced with a more modern vehicle about a decade ago, plans were canceled because of budget constraints.

The Marines who were aboard the vehicle when it sank were wearing their normal combat gear, which includes body armor, because of the training that they were doing on the island. They were also wearing flotation vests, according to Osterman. Some of the Marines were rescued because they were floating.

San Clemente Island is about 70 miles west of San Diego and hosts communications equipment overseen by the Navy for managing air space, ranges and operating areas, according to the official website for Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, San Diego. There are more than a dozen ranges and operational areas within a 60-mile radius of the island, according to the website.

A Marine Expeditionary Unit is comprised of about 2,200 Marines and sailors and broken out into four elements. Its Ground Combat Element has about 1,200 and includes a battalion landing team that consists of light armored reconnaissance vehicles, artillery and assault amphibian vehicles, according to the 15th MEU official website.

Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin Kenney contributed to this report.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver