A search for seven Camp Pendleton Marines and a U.S. Navy sailor was under way Friday following a "training mishap" with an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) off the coast of Southern California, according to the United States Marine Corps. One Marine died following the training incident, and two others were severely injured.
Fifteen Marines and one sailor were inside the AAV when they reported taking on water at approximately 5:45 p.m Thursday. The group was traveling from the shores of San Clemente Island, approximately 78 miles off the coast of San Diego, to a Navy ship when the AVV started sinking about halfway through their training routine, according to Lt. Cameron H. Edinburgh, a Marine Corps spokesman for Camp Pendleton.
Eight Marines were rescued from the sunken AVV, but seven Marines and one sailor remain missing as of 3 p.m. Friday, according to Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger.
One of the rescued Marines was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla where he was pronounced dead. He was assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
Two rescued Marines were taken to Scripps La Jolla for treatment, both in critical condition. The remaining five Marines who were rescued are back aboard their assigned ship, Gen. Berger said.
Berger said the military is still in an active search and rescue operation and is not yet calling the search for the remaining passengers a recovery mission.
The sunken AAV is more than a thousand meters offshore and several hundred feet below the surface of the ocean, deeper than the range of human divers, according to Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, Commanding General, I MEF.
"They were basically completing training," Osterman said. "They already came 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 onto the ship.”
Berger has directed an immediate suspension of AAV water operations until the Marine Corps has more information regarding this incident, and said all AAV across the fleet will be inspected.
USS Essex, USS Somerset, USS San Diego, USS John Finn, three U.S. Navy helicopters, and several small boats were being aided by a U.S. Coast Guard ship and a helicopter from Coast Guard Sector San Diego in the search for the eight missing service members.
Osterman said Multiple AAV were adjacent when the sunken AAV started taking on water, so rescue teams are aware of its exact location.
“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, the unit's commanding officer, said in a statement from the Marine Corps. Twitter account.
The Marine Corps maintains a fleet of more than 800 AAV, Osterman said.
The Marines use the amphibious assault vehicles to transport troops and equipment from Navy ships to land. They are nicknamed “amtracs” because the original name for the vehicle was “amphibious tractor.”
The armored vehicles can hold more than 20 passengers and up to 250 pounds of equipment, and can weigh as much as 30 tons. They are outfitted with machine guns and grenade launchers. They look like tanks as they roll ashore for beach attacks, with Marines pouring out of them to take up positions.
Thursday's accident marks the third time in less than a decade that Camp Pendleton Marines have been injured or died in amphibious assault vehicles during training exercises.
In 2011, a Marine was killed when an AAV sank during a training exercise in Oceanside Harbor. Six Marines were inside that AAV.
And in 2017, 14 Marines and one sailor were hospitalized after their AVV hit a natural gas line, igniting a fire that engulfed the landing craft during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton, the sprawling coastal Marine Corps base north of San Diego. One of the Marines was critically injured.
The Marine Expeditionary Force is the Marine Corps’ main warfighting organization. There are three such groups, each of which are made up of ground, air and logistics forces.
Check back for the latest updates on this developing story.