Searchers locate amphibious tank with bodies aboard off San Clemente Island

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SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND (CNS) – The U.S. military announced Tuesday that it has located an amphibious assault vehicle that sank last week off the coast of San Diego County, killing nine young servicemen, and confirmed the presence of human remains where the vessel came to rest on the sea floor.

The naval Undersea Rescue Command made the discovery near San Clemente Island on Monday using video systems remotely operated aboard the HOS Dominator, a merchant vessel whose crew specializes in undersea search and rescue.

“The Navy has expedited the movement of assets to recover the remains … as well as raise the AAV,” according to a statement from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “The equipment to properly and safely perform the recovery from the sea floor will be in place at the end of this week, and a dignified transfer of our Marines and sailor will occur as soon as possible after the conclusion of recovery operations.”

The amphibious troop-transport vehicle was en route to a waiting ship during a maritime training mission about 80 miles west of Encinitas when it foundered for unknown reasons about 5:45 p.m. Thursday, according to Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of I MEF.

The 26-ton vessel went down roughly 1,600 yards from a beach on the northwest side of the island in water nearly 400 feet deep.

Seven members of the Camp Pendleton-based crew survived the accident. Medics took two of them to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where both were admitted in critical status. One was upgraded to stable condition as of Sunday night.

The other five rescued Marines received clean bills of health and returned to their units.

Pronounced dead at the scene of the accident was Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez of New Braunfels, Texas. Perez, 20, was a rifleman with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The 15th MEU, I MEF and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group searched in vain for nearly two days for more survivors or their bodies, finally concluding the operation Saturday after 40 hours of scanning some 1,325 square miles of water by sea and air.

The other lost service members have been identified as:

  • Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, a Navy hospital corpsman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 19, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU.

Tuesday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that flags at the state Capitol be flown at half-staff in honor of the personnel lost to the maritime accident.

“Jennifer and I were heartbroken to learn of the loss of nine service members in an accident off San Clemente Island,” Newsom said in a prepared statement. “It is a painful reminder of the sacrifice of members of our armed forces, who put their lives on the line for us. We stand united in mourning with their families and fellow Marines and sailors.”

In the early afternoon, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss” of the young servicemen.

“Our prayers are with their families,” he stated. “I thank them for the brave service their loved ones gave to our nation.”

In an official statement released Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said “(a) grateful nation and the Department of Defense grieves the tragic loss … of these brave young men.”

“Their service, commitment and courage will always be remembered by the nation they served,” Esper said. “While the incident remains under investigation, I want to assure our service members and their families that we are committed to gathering all the facts, understanding exactly how this incident occurred and preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

San Clemente Island, one of the eight in the Channel Islands archipelago, is owned by the U.S. Navy and lies within the boundaries of Los Angeles County. Its military uses are administered by Naval Base Coronado.

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