Marine scans water from helicopter
A Marine scans the ocean from a helicopter during the search. Marine Corps photo

Seven Marines and one Navy sailor are presumed dead Sunday after the military called off its search for the troops, who went missing after an amphibious assault vehicle sank during a training mission Thursday.

One additional Marine was rescued, but later died, and two others remain in critical condition, in the aftermath of the incident that occurred near San Clemente Island, 80 miles off the coast of Encinitas.

“It is with a heavy heart that I decided to conclude the search and rescue effort,” said Col. Christopher Bronzi, the commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “As we turn to recovery operations we will continue our exhaustive search for our missing Marines and sailor.”

The 15th MEU, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group had been working together to try to locate more survivors, but they concluded the search and rescue operation Saturday after 40 hours of seeking across 1,324 square miles.

All of the victims’ next-of-kin have been notified.

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 1st MEF.

In total, 15 Marines and one sailor had participated in the “routine” exercise.

“The amphibious assault vehicle they were riding in began to take on water and sank,” according to a Marine Corps press release.

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.

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

Crews aboard the USS John Finn, USS Makin Island, USS Somerset and USS San Diego, assisted in the operation. Eleven U.S. Navy helicopters, several smaller USN and Marine Corp. vessels, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a chopper from USCG Sector San Diego, also participated in the search for the missing service personnel.

The 26-ton amphibious vehicle went down more than 1,000 yards from a beach on the northwest side of the San Clemente 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 incident will be the subject of an exhaustive investigation, according to USMC officials.

“Our thoughts and prayers have been, and will continue to be with our Marines’ and sailor’s families during this difficult time,” Bronzi said. “The steadfast dedication of the Marines, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen to the persistent rescue effort was tremendous.”

All of the Marines involved were assigned to the 15th MEU, based out of Camp Pendleton.

The Undersea Rescue Command will now deploy an underwater drone to look for remains on the ocean floor, with support from offshore supply ship HOS Dominator.

San Clemente Island is one of the eight islands that make up the Channel Islands archipelago.

The island is owned and operated by the U.S. Navy and is part of Los Angeles County. It is administered by Naval Base Coronado.

The names of the deceased troops are expected to be released within the next 24 hours.

–City News Service