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Families of troops killed in sinking of amphibious vehicle off San Diego coast will sue BAE Systems, its maker

Attorney Annee Della Donna speaks at a news conference. (Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

The families of the nine service members killed last year when their assault amphibious vehicle sank off the San Diego coast are suing the manufacturer of the vehicles, they said at an emotional news conference Thursday ahead of the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.

The families also demand the Marine Corps modify existing AAVs as well as its replacement, the amphibious combat vehicle, with more effective ways to escape what one of their attorneys called a “death trap” in the event of another sinking.

The Vietnam War-era AAV was designed and manufactured by BAE Systems, the same contractor that was recently awarded a $184 million contract to begin production on its replacement, the new ACV.

“We don’t want another AAV going into that water until there’s a way out for our servicemen and women,” said Eric Dubin, an attorney for the families. “This AAV had a design defect that BAE had known about for a long time — and now the whole world knows about the vulnerability of this vehicle, and that’s unacceptable. They were kids, and they were put in a death trap.”

A BAE Systems spokesman declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but said the company sympathizes with the families.

“We offer our deepest sympathies to the families impacted by this tragedy and we mourn the loss of the nine service members,” said Tim Paynter, a BAE Systems spokesperson, in an email.

On July 30, 2020, 15 Marines and one sailor left the amphibious transport dock Coronado en route to train on San Clemente Island in a 35-year-old AAV that investigators later said was in such poor mechanical condition it should not have been in use.

After training on the island — during which the AAV experienced mechanical issues — the troops rolled off the rocky beach and into the waves to return to their ship. They never made it.

The vehicle’s transmission failed, which caused a chain reaction of failures. The water discharge pump inside the vehicle stopped working, and it sat stalled in the open sea for 45 minutes taking on water. When the troops inside couldn’t get the rear hatch open, a hatch in the AAV’s roof was opened. However, when another AAV came to assist the floundering vehicle, it created a swell that washed over the roof, spilling the sea inside. The vehicle quickly slipped beneath the waves and plunged hundreds of feet to the bottom of the ocean.

Eight Marines and one sailor, ages 18 to 23, died. Seven Marines were rescued.

Family members of several of the Marines spoke at a news conference in Oceanside Thursday, just outside the main gate of Camp Pendleton, where the troops were stationed. Annee Della Donna, one of the attorneys representing the families, described the circumstances the troops faced in their final moments.

“The truth has not been told to these families,” Della Donna said. “The real reason they died was there was no way for them to get out alive.”

BAE Systems has known about this defect for decades and never bothered to fix it or notified the military, she said.

“Instead, they’ve taken millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers to build these death traps,” Della Donna said.

When the troops couldn’t get the top hatches on the vehicle open, Della Donna said, the vehicle commander and three others climbed out from their positions and opened the hatches themselves. The heavy doors wouldn’t stay open on their own, she said, and when a wave washed over the top of the AAV, it washed the four Marines out to sea and the hatch slammed shut.

“Our clients’ sons desperately tried to get out alive … but there was no way physically to push that door open,” she said. “The weight of the door and the pressure from the waves, according to our experts, was over 5,000 pounds. They couldn’t get out.”

Some family members fought tears or cried while talking about their lost loved ones.

“Bryan wanted to do this since he was a little kid,” said Evelyn Baltierra of her son, Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, who was 18 when he died. She said her son joined the Marines because he wanted to make a difference in the world.

“When they took my son, they kind of took my life,” said Christiana Sweetwood, mother of Lance Cpl. Lance Sweetwood. “Why is my son gone? Why was he not kept safe? He died the day before his 19th birthday — they couldn’t even get him to his 19th birthday.”

Attorneys for the families said they expect to file their lawsuit next week. The lawsuit only targets BAE — U.S. law, known as the “Feres Doctrine,” prevents families from suing the military directly, even when deaths are the result of negligence, said Tim Loranger, one of the lawyers.

The Marines removed three commanders in connection with the incident. Lt. Col. Michael Regner, the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1/4 — the unit the to which the troops were attached — was removed from command in October. Col. Christopher Bronzi, the commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expitionary Unit, was fired in March upon the completion of the Marine Corps investigation.

Initially, the Marines elected not to punish Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, the two-star general in command of the 1st Marine Division when the vehicle sank, even though its investigation found he bore some responsibility. Castellvi left his command to become the Marine Corps’ inspector general just months after the sinking.

Under pressure from the families of the lost service members this spring, the Marines opened another probe into the formation of the MEU. Shortly after that investigation began, Castellvi was suspended from his job as inspector general pending the new investigation’s outcome. In June, the Marines formally punished him, effectively ending his career.

Della Donna said if the families were allowed by law to sue the military, they would consider it.

“It has been a serious impediment to the families who suffered tragically who are prevented by this case called Feres that says they can’t (seek compensation from government) even when there is very clear negligence on the part of the military,” Loranger said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Sweetwood said she’s struggled with how she feels about the Marines in the wake of the tragedy. At one point she took down a Marine Corps flag that flies at her home.

“For a while I was so mad I went out and took my Marine flag down,” she said. “I was so upset, just seeing the flag hurt me. I realized though, that my son loved what he did — I can’t take that from him. So I put it back up. It stays.”

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