AAV7 amtrack
An AAV7 amtrack hits the water at Camp Pendleton during training. Marine Corps photo

The 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 roughly 80 miles off the coast of Encinitas, 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 personnel involved the accident.

The fatal accident prompted an immediate suspension of AAV water operations.

The AAV sank for unknown reasons about 5:45 p.m. Thursday, more than 1,000 yards from shore on the northwest side of the island while the crew was en route to a waiting ship following operational maneuvers, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force.

“They signaled to the rest of the unit that they were in fact taking on water,” Osterman said. “Immediate response was provided by two additional amphibious assault vehicles, as well a safety boat.”

Seven of the personnel aboard 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.

The Marines were wearing combat gear along with inflatable vests when the incident occurred, Osterman said.

“It sank completely,” he said, adding that it was in several hundred feet of water. At “26 tons, the assumption is that it went all the way to the bottom.”

“It’s really below the depth that a diver can go to,” Osterman added.

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.

Marines regularly practice beach assaults in the area where the incident occurred.

Taking part in the search for the missing personnel, which has continued unabated since  the accident, were the crews aboard the destroyer USS John Finn, three U.S. Navy helicopters, several smaller Navy vessels, and a Coast Guard cutter and chopper from San Diego.

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 USMC officials.

Berger said that in addition to suspending all AAV water operations until the cause is determined, AAVs across the fleet will be inspected.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident. I ask that you keep our Marines, sailors and their families in your prayers as we continue our search,” Col. Christopher Bronzi, commanding officer of the 15th MEU, said in a prepared statement.

— From Staff and Wire Reports

Updated 8:40 p.m.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.