The U.S. military continued an all-out search Friday for seven Marines and a Navy sailor who went missing in the ocean near San Clemente Island when an amphibious assault vehicle sank during a training exercise, killing at least one member of the crew.
Nearly 24 hours after the armored troop carrier foundered, Marine Corps officials continued to view the around-the-clock effort to find the missing personnel as a prospective rescue operation, according to Gen. David Berger, USMC commandant.
“We have not moved into a recovery operation,” Berger told reporters during a mid-afternoon briefing at Camp Pendleton, the home base of the missing and recovered personnel.
The fatal accident — which prompted an immediate suspension of AAV water operations — took place about 5:45 p.m. Thursday while the crew was en route to a waiting ship following several days of operational maneuvers, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Seven of the personnel were able to get out of the sinking land- and sea-going vehicle and were pulled from the water. Medics took three of them to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where one was pronounced dead and the others were admitted in critical but stable condition.
As of Friday afternoon, the other five rescued Marines had gotten clean bills of health and had returned to their units, officials said.
Taking part in the search, which has continued unabated since the time of the accident, were crews aboard the USS John Finn, three U.S. Navy helicopters, several smaller USN vessels, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a chopper from USCG Sector San Diego.
The 26-ton amphibious vehicle went down more than 1,000 yards from a beach on the northwest side of the island in water several hundred feet deep, Osterman said.
“It’s really below the depth that a diver can go to,” Osterman told reporters.
The deadly accident will be the subject of an exhaustive investigation, according to USMC officials.
“We will share the results of it (with the public) once it is complete and the families have been notified,” Berger said.
“In the meantime, I have directed an immediate suspension of amphibious-assault-vehicle water operations until the causal factors of this mishap are better understood. All AAVs across the fleet will be inspected.”
The names of the victims — all members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit — and further details about them were withheld out of respect for their families, according to Marine Corps officials.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident,” Col. Christopher Bronzi, commanding officer of the 15th MEU, said in a prepared statement. “I ask that you keep our Marines, sailors and their families in your prayers as we continue our search.”
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