Marines put assault amphibious vehicles back in the water for the first time since one sank and killed 9 service members

Marines aboard an amphibious assault vehicle
Marines aboard an amphibious assault vehicle.

  • The Marine Corps is putting AAVs back in the water for the first time since a deadly accident.
  • Last summer, eight Marines and a Navy sailor drowned when an AAV sank off of California.
  • Water operations were halted as the Corps looked into the failures that caused the accident.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Marine Corps put an assault amphibious vehicle back in the water this week for the first time since one sank last summer, killing nine service members, Marine Corps officials told Insider Thursday.

Last July, an AAV assigned to Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sank off the coast of California as it returned to the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset from San Clemente Island.

The mishap vehicle was carrying three AAV crewmembers, 12 Marines, and one Navy corpsman. Eight embarked Marines and the Navy sailor died, making this incident the deadliest AAV training accident in the vehicle’s history.

“Out of precaution, before we understand what caused this, we are pausing the waterborne operations for amtracs,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said the day after the accident, as the Corps was still searching for the bodies of the deceased, considered only missing at that point.

A recently released investigation into this tragic disaster revealed it was preventable. The accident was caused by a series of human and mechanical failures. Specifically, the vehicle was improperly maintained, training was inadequate, and critical safety procedures were not followed.

Responsibility for the deadly accident was placed on leaders across the chain of command, from the 15th MEU commander down to the vehicle commander. Disciplinary action has already been taken against some unit commanders.

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Marines drive an AAV into the water during training at Camp Pendleton, California.

This week, after an eight-and-a-half-month pause, AAVs again started splashing, but with conditions, Corps officials said.

Last Friday, the Marines published requirements for the resumption of AAV waterborne operations, Marine Corps spokesperson Capt. Andrew Wood told Insider on Thursday.

No movement between Navy ships and shore is permitted, and shore-to-shore movement over water is only permitted once a unit has completed 18 tasks.

Wood said that the tasks “cover a variety of requirements from ensuring training and qualifications for crew and embarked personnel, personnel are properly equipped, vehicles have passed required inspections, and operations are conducted with safety boats, sea state assessments, and positive communication.”

For instance, everyone riding in an AAV has to have completed the full underwater-egress training program, to include training on the Waterborne Egress Capability breathing bottles.

As Insider previously reported, the supplemental emergency breathing devices are being put back in the vehicles after they were removed in 2015 to cut costs. All embarking personnel must be equipped with these devices.

These requirements also apply to the new amphibious combat vehicles that are being introduced as replacements for the AAVs that first entered service in the 1970s.

At the moment, the California-based 1st Marine Division is believed to be the only unit to have met the requirements, division spokeswoman Maj. Kendra Motz told Insider. She said the first AAVs splashed Tuesday.

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Marines who drowned when their AAV sank didn’t have breathing devices because the Corps canceled the program to cut costs

An assault amphibious vehicle departs the well deck of an amphibious transport dock ship.
An assault amphibious vehicle departs the well deck of an amphibious transport dock ship.

  • A Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle sank last summer, and nine people drowned.
  • Troops didn’t have breathing devices because the Corps cut the program years ago to save money.
  • In the wake of the accident, the Corps has changed its mind and is bringing these devices back.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When a Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle sank off the coast of California last summer, the troops inside did not have any breathing devices. Nine US service members drowned.

The embarked service members were not carrying the devices because the Corps made the decision to get rid of them several years ago after assessing that program’s $15.9 million cost outweighed concerns about a possible catastrophe, two Corps officials told Insider.

Embarked Marines used to carry Waterborne Egress Capability (WEC) breathing systems as a component of their LPU-41 life preservers. In the event that an AAV sank, the bottled breathing devices would provide up to five minutes of air.

It is not a lot of time, but it is more than enough time to remove your gear, get your bearings, and take action, a Marine official, a former division commander, said.

Troops trying to escape a submerged vehicle can easily find themselves disoriented and struggling with their heavy gear as they desperately fight to reach the surface. A few extra minutes of air beyond what is in their lungs might be the difference between staying alive and dying.

The WEC bottled breathing device program was canceled in 2015, just four years after it began, as the Corps grappled with budget concerns.

“So 2011 to 2015, we have this program,” another Marine official, a former Marine Expeditionary Unit commander, said. “2015, if you recall where we were fiscally in 2015, we’re in sequestration.”

During the Obama administration, a deep budget cut known as sequestration impacted all federal spending, including that of the Department of Defense.

“I’m a big believer in the bottles,” the former division commander said. “But, in 2015, we were scrambling for money, looking under the cushions of the sofas, trying to make ends meet. This was a convenient thing.”

The former MEU commander explained to Insider that the Marine Corps measures risk by likelihood of occurrence and severity of outcome.

In this case, a decision was made that an accident requiring supplemental air was unlikely given the limited number and nature of fatal AAV accidents. The decision to discontinue the WEC bottled breathing device program was reassessed after tragedy struck last summer.

amphibious assault vehicle

A tragic mishap

Last July, an AAV assigned to Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sank off the coast of California as it returned to the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset from San Clemente Island during a training exercise.

Failure after failure ended in disaster. Eight embarked Marines and a Navy sailor drowned, making this incident the deadliest AAV training accident in the vehicle’s decades of service.

The commander of US Marine Corps Pacific blamed the sinking and the resulting deaths on “a confluence of human and mechanical failures” in a statement attached to the investigation. He added that “this tragic mishap was preventable.”

The biggest problem was that the vehicle, which was initially carrying 16 service members, was not evacuated until it was too late. The vehicle sank with 11 people still on board. All but one service member made it out, but only three made it to the surface.

The three service members who made it to the surface each suffered drowning injuries. One did not survive.

As for the troops who died without reaching the surface, all of them were wearing body armor. Some had tried to drop their gear but were unsuccessful. In addition to the problem of excess weight, the life preservers they had on were not as effective as they would normally be given the depth at which they were operated.

The Marine officials Insider talked to about the accident did not say whether or not WEC breathing devices would have made a difference and saved lives in this situation. Though the investigation was silent on this point, the Corps has, as a result of this terrible accident, changed its mind on the program, the officials said.

“It has been reinstated,” the former MEU commander revealed. “This year, we will field WEC bottles for all our MEU units.”

AAV crews are temporarily using Helicopter Aircrew Breathing Devices (HABD) borrowed from the Marine Expeditionary Force air wings, but the WEC devices are being brought back for AAV passengers and crews.

“We have on contract now – and we’ll bring back as a program of record – the full WEC system, which includes the bottles [and] the charging station for the bottles,” he said, adding that “it will be a requirement to be trained and equipped with a Waterborne Egress Capability device to be in the back of an AAV or ACV.”

The ACV, or Amphibious Combat Vehicle, is the replacement for the ageing fleet of AAVs, some of which have been around since the mid-1970s. The Corps began rolling them out ahead of schedule last October.

Since the deadly accident last summer that claimed the lives of nine service members, the Marine Corps has not conducted any waterborne operations with its amphibious vehicles. These are not expected to resume until the service has finished making changes to the way these vehicles are maintained and operated.

Marine officials have stressed repeatedly that they are committed to preventing something like what happened last July from happening again.

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US troops had to use their phones as flashlights to try to escape a sinking assault amphibious vehicle that killed 9 of them

Marines aboard an amphibious assault vehicle
Marines aboard an assault amphibious vehicle.

  • The Marine Corps has released the investigation into the AAV that sank and killed nine last summer.
  • The investigation shows that failure after failure led to tragedy.
  • At one point, troops used phones to open the escape hatch because the emergency lights were out.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle (AAV) accident last summer that killed nine service members was a disaster, one in which failure after failure led to tragedy, a newly-released investigation has revealed.

A lot of things went wrong. At one point, just minutes before the vehicle sank, troops on board were using their cell phones as flashlights to try and open one of the escape hatches because the emergency lighting system wasn’t working. That was just one of many problems the investigation found.

An AAV is a heavy fully-tracked amphibious landing vehicle commonly known as an “amtrac” or “track” that transports as many as two dozen troops between ships at sea and shore.

Last July, an AAV assigned to Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sank off the coast of California as it returned to the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset from San Clemente Island.

The mishap vehicle was carrying three AAV crewmembers, 12 Marines, and one Navy corpsman. Eight embarked Marines and the Navy sailor died, making this incident the deadliest AAV training accident in the vehicle’s history.

In the aftermath, the Marine Corps grounded its entire fleet of AAVs as it launched an investigation into exactly what happened. Waterborne operations have yet to resume.

The commander of US Marine Corps Pacific blamed the sinking and the resulting deaths on “a confluence of human and mechanical failures” in a statement attached to the investigation. He added that “this tragic mishap was preventable.”

Marines board an amphibious assault vehicle
Marines board an assault amphibious vehicle.

‘Human and mechanical failures’

The command investigation found that the accident was caused by maintenance failures, delayed evacuation orders, and a failure to properly train embarked personnel on AAV safety procedures, among other issues.

As the 26-ton amphibious vehicle returned to the Somerset following a shore exercise on July 30, water was leaking into the hull of the AAV from multiple locations. All AAVs leak, but more water than normal was leaking in due to various maintenance failings.

Around 5:30 p.m. local time, the rear crewman informed the vehicle commander that the water inside the AAV had reached the deck plate. The commander is said to have replied: “Thanks for letting me know.”

Standard operating procedure is that embarked personnel prepare for water operations when water hits the deck plate. Evacuation should begin when water reaches boot ankle level, but that did not happen and the results were fatal.

In addition to multiple watertight integrity failures, the vehicle also suffered several other serious mechanical failures, from the transmission to the generator, which impacted the four bilge pumps in place to push water out of the vehicle. The communications system was also affected.

When water hit boot ankle level, the vehicle commander began waving the November flag, a blue and white banner signaling that a waterborne vehicle is in distress and in need of immediate assistance, but no order to evacuate was given, the investigation said.

As for the embarked personnel who were riding in the back, the investigation said that they “were not trained appropriately and did not realize how dire the situation was … when the water was at boot ankle level.”

Not only did they not receive a proper safety briefing prior to waterborne operations, but the investigation also found that many of the embarked troops had not completed the necessary training to know how to exit the vehicle in an emergency.

The commander waved the blue and white distress flag for 20 minutes but did not make use of the pyrotechnic signaling options available.

Due to a miscommunication, there were no safety boats nor support AAVs in the water at the time of the accident, though two other AAVs did eventually maneuver to assist.

By around 6:05 p.m., water in the AAV was about calf-high, and the rear crewman was recommending evacuation to the vehicle commander. The order to open the starboard cargo hatch and start evacuation did not come until water hit the bench seats.

Troops in the back moved to open the cargo hatch on top, but things did not go smoothly due to a lack of training and decreased visibility. It was “extremely dark” inside the AAV.

The command investigation said that the “embarked personnel were using personal cell phones as a lighting source due to the Emergency Egress Lighting System not functioning and the fact that no chemical lights had been used to mark the hatch handles.” The EELS had been inexplicably disabled.

By the time they got the hatch open and started getting people out, the AAV was only about six inches out of the water, leaving it extremely vulnerable. Making matters worse, an assisting AAV ran into the mishap vehicle, knocking it sideways.

When a wave washed over the struggling AAV, water came pouring in through the open hatch, flooding the vehicle.

Some troops were standing on the bench seats that run along the inside of the vehicle when “the force of the water rushing in knocked all personnel off their feet,” leaving troops inside shocked and disoriented, the investigation said.

Minutes later, around 6:15 p.m., the vehicle, which had been sinking slowly for about 45 minutes, tilted up and slipped beneath the surface, plunging to a depth of 385 feet.

All but one service member made it out of the AAV, but seven troops who made it out drowned before reaching the surface. One service member made it to the surface but died of drowning injuries.

The command investigation said that all of the deceased service members were wearing body armor. Some troops appear to have tried to remove their gear, but the life preserver negatively impacted those efforts.

For those that never made it to the surface, the life preservers were less effective at depth, especially given the excess weight troops were carrying.

The service members who died when their vehicle sank last summer were Lance Cpl. Guillermo Perez, Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, Lance Cpl. Marco Barranco, Pfc. Evan Bath, Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, Cpl. Wesley Rodd, Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, and Cpl. Cesar Villanueva, and Hospitalman Christopher Gnem.

The Marine Corps said in a statement Thursday that their loss continues to be felt across the service.

Marines aboard amphibious assault vehicle prepare for an amphibious assault.
Marines aboard amphibious assault vehicle prepare for an amphibious assault.

‘Tragic mishap was preventable’

The I Marine Expeditionary Force commander said in a statement that “this entire mishap could have been averted and lives saved if the vehicle commander had followed [standard operating procedures] and ordered the embarked personnel to take off their gear and evacuate the mishap AAV at the appropriate time.”

But, there were problems at other levels as well. He noted that at the platoon level “discipline and combat effectiveness were seriously compromised.”

The Marine Corps has already removed the senior commanders of BLT 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and the 15th MEU. The commander of Bravo Company has also been fired. Unspecified disciplinary action has also been recommended for some others in the chain of command.

In the wake of the deadly accident last summer, the Corps adjusted the inspection standards for its AAVs. It also halted all AAV waterborne operations until the entire fleet of roughly 800 vehicles could be inspected. The investigation said that “a majority of the AAVs failed to meet the new inspection criteria.”

The AAV that sank and killed eight Marines and a sailor was not the only vehicle that encountered troubles during last summer’s training exercise.

A little over a dozen AAVs were involved in the training. One had to be left on the ship because it was inoperable, another had to be picked up from San Clemente Island by a Landing Craft Air Cushion after it malfunctioned, and one lost the ability to maneuver and had to be towed back to the island.

An inspection of the participating vehicles after the accident found that most were in “poor condition.”

One Marine veteran Insider spoke to previously about the problems with AAVs said that the vehicles “are death traps and need to be updated if not completely eradicated from the Marine Corps.”

Marine Corps officials insist the vehicles are safe as long as procedures are properly followed.

The Corps is in the process of phasing out its AAVs and replacing them with the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV). The service is also making dozens of changes to the way it maintains and operates amphibious vehicles to make sure that nothing like what happened last summer happens again.

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