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Families Honor 9 Killed in AAV Sinking as Investigations Continue

Marines with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, operate AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicles onto the well deck of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD-25) on July 27, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Marines and sailors joined grieving families and friends at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Friday to remember the Navy corpsman and eight Marines who died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off Southern California three weeks ago.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit held the private memorial service to remember Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, Calif., and eight infantrymen with B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines: Cpls. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas, and Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, Calif.; Lance Cpls. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, Calif., Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, and Chase D. Sweetwood, 19, of Portland, Ore.; and Pfcs. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona, Calif., Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisc., and Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Ore.

The service was closed to the public and the media. Imagery from the service would be released publicly on Saturday, the 15th MEU said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, investigations continue into the cause of the July 30 accident, which prompted Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger to order a pause to any waterborne operations of the service’s amtrac fleet.

“There are two concurrent investigations, an independent Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation,” Col. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman with I Marine Expeditionary Force, said in a Friday statement. “The Command Investigation is comprised of a team immediately selected post-incident and is led by a Marine Corps colonel, mandated under the Judge Advocate General’s Manual any time an incident involves loss of life to military personnel in a duty status.”

The command investigation was assigned and is overseen by the I MEF commander, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl.

“The Naval Safety Center investigation is conducted independently and is also ongoing,” Bartelt said. That investigation usually includes “individuals from the command working with and in coordination with the Naval Safety Center,” he added.

The 15th MEU was training at sea with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group in exercises at the time of the mishap. The ill-fated amtrac was carrying a crew of three Marines and a squad-sized unit of 12 Marines and a Navy corpsman with B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, from San Clemente Island. The AAV-P7/A1 was returning to amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD-25) when it started taking on water.

A dozen other AAVs and a safety boat were in the waters off San Clemente Island’s northwest coast when the crew in the vehicle reported taking on water, I MEF officials said in announcing the mishap.

Eight Marines were pulled from the ocean by responding crews before the 26-ton vehicle sank, eventually settling in about 385-foot deep water. Three of those Marines were evacuated to a local trauma center at Scripps Memorial La Jolla, and one, Perez, was pronounced dead that day.

The two other injured Marines were in serious condition and were later transported to Naval Hospital San Diego before being released, said 1st Lt. Brian Tuthill, a I MEF spokesman. Five other Marines rescued were treated and released back to their unit, officials said.

A search-and-rescue effort included three ships, small boats, a Coast Guard cutter, Navy MH-60 helicopters and a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, but no other survivors were found. The amtrac was pulled from the sea a week later after the Navy’s Undersea Rescue Command brought in specialized equipment, including the Sibitzky remotely-operated vehicle and the Military Sealift Command-chartered merchant vessel HOS Dominator, to locate and recover the remains of the eight service members.