Marines halt search efforts; 8 missing troops presumed dead after amphibious vehicle sank off San Diego coast

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Seven Marines and one sailor who went missing after their Assault Amphibious Vehicle sank near San Clemente Island are presumed dead, the Marines announced Sunday morning. Rescue efforts will now transition to recovery as the service looks for a way to recover their remains from the vehicle under hundreds of feet of water.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group determined there is little probability of a successful rescue given the circumstances of the incident, the statement said.

Sixteen service members were on the AAV when it left San Clemente Island, 70 miles west of San Diego, on Thursday. The 26-ton craft began taking on water about 1,000 feet off the island. Eight Marines were rescued; one later died and two were hospitalized in critical condition. Sunday’s announcement brings the death toll to nine. All were based at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

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

The guided-missile destroyer John Finn and Coast Guard cutter Forrest Rednour were involved in the more than two-day search, along with small boats from the amphibious assault ship Makin Island, amphibious transport docks Somerset and San Diego, and Navy and Coast Guard helicopters.

Crews searched more than 1,000 square nautical miles of ocean, the Marines said.

The offshore supply ship HOS Dominator and an unmanned submarine from the Undersea Rescue Command are working to locate and recover those missing.

At a news conference Friday, the former commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Unit, Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, said Marines in nearby AAV’s watched the vehicle sink, so searchers have a good idea where they might find it.

“We know precisely where it went down because other units were literally right there with it,” he said.

Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, was at Camp Pendleton Friday for the planned turnover of command of IMEF. He announced at a news conference that all waterborne operations of Marine AAVs will be suspended until the cause of Thursday’s sinking is known.

Known as “Amtracs” or “hogs,” the vehicles weigh at least 48,000 pounds. Upon leaving a ship, the vehicle, which resembles a tank, will drop below the surface of the water before popping back up. They can move about 8 mph at sea and up to 46 mph on land.

The current version of the vehicle is almost 50 years old, though it has been modernized through the years. A $15 billion program for its replacement, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, was canceled in 2011 due to budget constraints.

The same style of vehicle was involved in a 2017 accident on Camp Pendleton that sent 14 Marines and a sailor to the hospital with serious burn injuries after the vehicle struck a gas line.

Another Marine died on Camp Pendleton in 2011 when an assault amphibious vehicle sank 300 feet offshore of the base in 30 to 40 feet of water.

———

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune