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Bodies of Marines and sailor recovered from the seafloor off California coast

U.S. Marines with All-Domain Reconnaissance Detachment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit secure a rescue spine board to a combat rubber raiding craft in the well deck of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) to conduct search and rescue operations following an AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle mishap off the coast of Southern California, July 30, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Kassie McDole)

The bodies of seven Marines and a sailor found inside a 26-ton Marine Corps seafaring vehicle were raised from the ocean floor on Friday, Aug. 7, a week after they sank during a training accident off San Clemente Island.

Families were notified Friday by visits from Marine Corps officers and chaplains. They will get a chance to see their loved ones during an “honorable carry” at Naval Base San Diego as Navy and Marine pallbearers place their flag-draped coffins aboard an aircraft headed to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. At the Air Force base, military personnel will conduct an honorable transfer, and the servicemen will later be released to their families according to their wishes, Marine Corps officials said.

“The agony of waiting is an unimaginable pain,” said Evelyn Baltierra, who was relieved to get the news that her son, Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, was found. “We now know that my son will be coming home soon to rest in peace. We are so grateful for the efficiency of the military’s rescue efforts.”

It was exactly one week ago, that Marine Corps officials notified her and her family that he was missing.

“Our hearts and thoughts of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit are with the families of our recovered Marines and sailor,” said Col. Christopher Bronzi, commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “We hope the successful recovery of our fallen warriors brings some measure of comfort.”

The recovery, a joint undertaking between several Navy and Marine Corps commands, is the final chapter in a week-long operation that began July 30, when the amphibious assault vehicle sank after leaving a beach on the island’s northwest side for a shore-to-ship training maneuver with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton. The island, the southernmost and fourth-largest in California’s Channel Islands chain, is owned by the Navy and is used for Marine and Navy training.

The AAV was on its way back to the USS Somerset, a Navy transport dock, when it started taking on water. There were 16 service members onboard; seven Marines were rescued after climbing from the AAV and one Marine, Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas, was declared dead at the scene.

Two of the seven Marines rescued were airlifted to a San Diego hospital in critical condition. One Marine has been released, a second Marine remains hospitalized.

The missing seven Marines and one Navy sailor were Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wis.; U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Ore.; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Ore. and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside.

The Camp Pendleton Marines were all riflemen, Gnem was a Navy corpsman attached to their unit.

Following the AAV’s quick disappearance, a 40-hour search-and-rescue operation that included ships and aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard scoured 1,000 square nautical miles near the island. The armored-tracked vehicle sunk to a depth of about 395 feet.

Early Sunday, Aug. 2, military officials announced the search-and-rescue effort was suspended and a recovery mission began. With help from the HOS Dominator, a Navy ship that specializes in underwear rescue, its remote operated vehicle and an additional Navy underwater vehicle, the ocean floor was scanned.

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, Marine Corps officials announced the AAV and the missing men were found on a smooth, sandy seafloor off the northwest corner of the island.

Since the discovery, military officials have raced to get additional assets to the location to raise the sunken vehicle. Meanwhile, the Dominator stayed in place over the wreckage site and did a further investigation with its remote vehicle to determine the condition of the AAV, the exact water depth, and the equipment needed for the recovery.

That equipment, which came from the East Coast, was loaded onto a commercial crane barge. On Aug. 6, the barge and an offshore supply vessel contracted by the U.S. Navy headed out to meet up with the Dominator.

The crane barge is equipped with another remotely operated vehicle, a deep drone, a deep ocean salvage system and a lift line. In all, officials expected the final recovery would take two days. No divers were involved because of the depth.

The recovered AAV will be taken to Camp Pendleton for an investigation. Military experts say the investigation likely could include a float test to determine if there was a structural leak and an examination of the multiple hatches and their seals and whether the vehicle’s bilge pump was functioning properly.

The seafaring armored vehicles on tracks carry troops in enclosed compartments and can transport 21 Marines, including about 200 pounds of gear for each. Quarters are incredibly tight and the only visibility is through a two-inch by three-and-a half-inch viewpoint in the back. The vehicle’s main hatch is on the top along with a smaller one; then there’s a commander’s hatch, a drivers’ hatch, a gunner’s hatch and a rear hatch. Marines have 800 of these vehicles Corps-wide.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger immediately suspended the use of the vehicles in any water training until an investigation into what occurred is concluded.

“We need to give time until we have a better picture of what happened,” he said.

Friday’s recovery provided some relief for the grieving families who are drawing support from their communities.

“The past few days have been extremely difficult,” Baltierra said. “But the outpouring of love and support from the city of Corona, family, friends, teachers and the community we have built in Corona since 2007, has helped tremendously. There’s always something to learn in any event in life, and my family and I have learned that people do care for one another even if the connection was lost at some point.”

To honor Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, one of two Marines from Oregon who died, Zach Saltos, a 19-year-old Washington D.C. student, has recruited more than 1,500 signatures on a petition to have a monument in his name placed along the Pilot Butte hiking trail near Ostrovsky’s hometown of Bend.

Though he only knew Ostrovsky from chatting in a Skype group, it was the 20-year-old’s dedication to the military and his country that left a lasting impression, Saltos said.

“Whenever we talked about it, he always held pride in America, and he held so much pride in the military especially,” Saltos said, adding that he and Ostrovsky and other online friends chatted about current and news events for more than a year.

Saltos was moved, he said, by a Memorial Day hike the Oregon Marine undertook in 2019.

“Jack hiked up Pilot Butte with combat gear and ammo containers in the memory of fallen veterans,” Saltos said. “He did this on his own because he wanted to; that was his way of giving thanks.

“He loved the United States of America with all his heart,” Saltos said, “and he enlisted in the Marine Corps a week later.”


©2020 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.