On the evening of July 30, 2020, an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) loaded with 15 Marines and a Navy Sailor took on water and rapidly sank off the coast of Southern California. Nine of the 16 service members inside the AAV were tragically killed in the incident. The deceased service members who perished in the AAV accident off the California coast were all under the age of 24.
The service members were all assigned to Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed at Camp Pendleton. According to media reports, the service members were conducting a routine training exercise off Navy-owned San Clemente Island when at approximately 5:45 p.m., the AAV began taking on more water than the vehicle could pump out. At the time of the fatal incident, the AAV was returning to amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD-25).
Other AAVs responded to the situation but could not stop the 26-ton amphibious vehicle from sinking. According to military officials, the AAV quickly sank in several hundred feet of water.
What Are Amphibious Assault Vehicles?
AAVs, commonly known as amtracs, are armored vehicles that carry service members and their equipment between a Navy ship and land. The vehicles look similar to tanks and are capable of operating on water and land. The Marine Corps has used AAVs since the early 1970s. According to Marine Corps officials, AAVs typically require 12-15 hours of service for every hour of use. In 2018, the Marine Corps announced a contract with multinational defense contractor BAE to develop a replacement for the AAV.
Marine Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas, was rescued from the AAV but died at the scene. Two other Marines were rushed to area hospitals; one was listed in critical condition following the incident and another crew member was listed stable condition. The five remaining Marines who were rescued returned to the USS Somerset.
According to CBS News, this incident may be the worst AAV training accident in military history. In response, the Marine Corps stated that it will suspend the operations of all AAVs in service until an investigation on the cause of the California AAV accident is completed.
Military Identifies Victims from the Marine AAV Accident Off California Coast
After days of searching for the missing service members, the military declared eight were presumed dead. They have since been identified as:
- Private First Class Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona, California, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Lance Corporal Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Private First Class Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California, hospital corpsman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Private First Class Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Corporal Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Lance Corporal Chase D. Sweetwood, 19, of Portland, Oregon, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
- Corporal Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California, rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU
What Caused the AAV Accident Off San Clemente Island?
The cause of this fatal AAV incident is currently under investigation. It may take a year or more for officials to determine the cause (or causes) and issue a report. “We have no idea what caused it and won’t know for a while,” said Commandant Gen. David Berger. “The Marines that were recovered obviously saw what happened, or part of it, so that will be really helpful. And then they’ll recover the amtrac and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
According to military accident attorney Timothy A. Loranger, a Marine Corps veteran, there are several important issues that the investigation will focus on.
“While the investigation is in its early stages, we believe there could potentially be one or more manufacturing issues involved in this incident,” said Mr. Loranger. “Officials will need to inspect the bilge pumps to see if they were working properly and also determine why the vessel was taking on water so quickly..”
Another key issue for investigators will be the escape hatches at the top of the vehicle. According to Tagen Schmidt, a veteran AAV crewman who was injured in a fiery 2017 AAV accident at Camp Pendleton, the top hatches of AAVs have handles that are often so stiff, “you need to beat them with a hammer to open.” He added that under normal circumstances, the hatches require two Marines to open. If the vehicle was submerged under more than three feet of water, the task of opening the hatches would be “extremely difficult if not impossible,” Schmidt said.
While we don’t know the precise cause of the tragedy at this time, one thing is known for sure: this vehicle is built for the purpose of operating in the ocean and if built and maintained correctly it should not sink. A meticulous examination of the sunken vehicle will be necessary before any conclusions can be drawn about what caused it to sink.
Military Accident Attorneys with Experience Holding Negligent Companies Accountable
The national law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman represents service members who have been wrongfully harmed in military accidents. We have experience holding third parties responsible for causing accidents that injure or kill the brave men and women who serve our country in uniform.
Our firm has handled a wide variety of military transportation accident cases, including:
- A 2017 AAV accident at Camp Pendleton that left 14 Marines and a Navy Corpsman with injuries
- A 2017 KC-130T plane crash in Mississippi that killed 15 Marines and a Navy Corpsman
- A 2013 military helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed one Army soldier and left another with severe disabilities
- A 2013 Marine Corps Humvee accident near Twentynine Palms, California that killed one person
- A 2011 military helicopter crash at Fort Benning, Georgia that killed two Army soldiers
Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman attorney Timothy A. Loranger is a Marine Corps veteran who worked as an aircraft mechanic throughout the U.S., including the Marine Corps and Navy Air Stations in El Toro, California; San Diego, California; Jacksonville, Florida; and Memphis, Tennessee. In 2020, Tim was named “Lawyer of the Year” for Personal Injury Litigation in Los Angeles by Best Lawyers, a distinction that exemplifies an exceptional level of trust and respect earned from peers in the legal field.
If you would like to consult with Tim about filing a military transportation accident claim, call toll-free (855) 948-5098 for a no-obligation, free and confidential, case evaluation.