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Marine's family wants more details on report about deadly AAV accident at sea

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: March 26, 2021

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Evelyn Baltierra clasped her hands and smiled nervously as she stood in her living room pointing out photos and memorabilia of her only son, Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, one of nine men who died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank to the ocean floor off San Clemente Island during a Marine Corps pre-deployment training raid this summer.

The eight-foot-long wall of memories was created with photos of Bryan's life: images of a brightly smiling Boy Scout, an athletic young track star and stoic photos of a Marine while training.

Carlos Baltierra, Bryan's father, pointed out the boots the 18-year-old Corona boy was wearing when his body was recovered from nearly 400 feet down on the ocean floor. The day he died, July 30, was the first anniversary of the day Bryan joined the Marine Corps.

Marine Corps officials crisscrossed the nation this week to personally deliver the results of an eight-month investigation into how Baltierra and the other men died while training.

Finding a series of failures up and down the chain of command and in the training and equipment, the investigation said the deaths were preventable.

At 11 a.m. sharp on Monday, March 22, the Baltierras — and their three daughters, Natalie, 24, Emily, 22, and Sara, 17 — heard that familiar firm knock on the door. The sound was the same as the one that shattered their lives nearly eight months ago when at first Bryan was reported among the missing hours before he was confirmed dead.

Four sharply dressed Marine Corps officers entered. Two — Chaplain Joe Costephens and Casualty Assistance Officer Chris Aument — have been with the family throughout the last many months. Col. Mark Van Skike was there to deliver the findings of the investigation, which were publicly released Thursday after all the families had been briefed. Another Marine officer from the Judge Advocate's Office was on hand to answer questions.

Each looked over at Bryan's memorial wall as they entered the home and moved to the family's kitchen table after initial greetings. Van Skike, saying a "conscious effort" had been made to keep as much of the investigation un-redacted for the families as possible, launched into the investigation's details.

The report focused on the actions of Marine Corps commanders, what procedures were followed and which weren't, the maintenance of the vehicles and some of the failures in training.

The details were not easy to hear, frequently bringing tears from the Baltierra family members. Van Skike talked about some of the events that day on the island that likely later played a role in the accident, including that the AAV was among a few vehicles of the group of 13 that had mechanical failures.

The investigation said it appeared to be out of oil in the transmission.

"The driver brought that to the attention of the rear crewman and he started looking at the engine to see if he could find the source of the leak," Van Skike said.

Carlos Baltierra told Van Skike that just two hours before the vehicle sank, his son texted him telling him that they would be on the island a while longer because smoke was coming from the engine.

"He was sending me pictures, he was saying, 'Hey Dad, the trac is smoking, we're stopped here.' I was making fun of him and joking saying, 'OK, I'll call AAA. We'll get you some help.'

"Two hours later, he goes, 'Dad, I think we got it fixed and we're going to take a dip in the ocean.' It was the last time I heard from him."

Most important to Carlos Baltierra was whether the Marine Corps took responsibility for the tragedy.

"As an organization, we failed, we catastrophically failed," Van Skike said.

Baltierra afterward said the information felt somewhat incomplete and left him with even more questions.

"I'm glad they are taking accountability for their actions during the 45 minutes," he said, referring to the actual time the men had to get off the slowly sinking AAV. "But there is so much more that occurred."

Van Skike's talk with the Baltierras ended with a bit of personal information about Bryan.

"This is where it gets tough," Van Skike said, taking a long pause. "He was a brother. He had just joined a new platoon and had a great reputation. He was an early riser and an avid runner. He said he had to do it to keep up with his sister."

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