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At first year anniversary of deadly AAV sinking, families push for new hatch system to prevent future accidents

The families of nine men who died a year ago Friday, July 30, when their amphibious assault vehicle was overwhelmed with water and sank off San Clemente Island are asking the Marine Corps to stop using the vehicles in water until a safer hatch system is installed.

In a press conference Thursday at a Holiday Inn in Oceanside, attorneys representing the families said they will also be filing a lawsuit against BAE Systems, the manufacturer of the AAVs, to “hold them responsible for the boys not being able to get out” of the 26-ton vehicle. The attorneys said research they had done by experts indicates the outward opening hatches on the AAV were too hard to open once submerged and that training in this situation would not have made a difference.

“The fact that there was no adequate egress, BAE has known this for decades,” said Annee Della Donna, one of three attorneys representing the families. “There was no way to open the cargo hatch door with pressure from 5,000 pounds of water. We know there were four men standing on seats trying to push up and the door wouldn’t open until the crew commander jumped out and put his full body weight on the top of the door to hold it open.”

She said after one Marine was able to get out the hatch while it was being forced open, a wave then came and “slapped them off” and “nine souls were stuck in a dark coffin until it sank.”

“No training in the world would have got that 5,000-pound hatch open,” she said.

Representatives with BAE could not be immediately reached for comment.

The pre-deployment training accident is now being called the deadliest in the Marine Corps’ history using the tracked, armored vehicles that transport infantry troops between beaches and ships out in the ocean.

Bella Donna said the lawsuit over defective design and failure to repair problems will be filed no later than Monday.

“When the Pinto burned, what did we do? We sued Ford,” she said. “We have to hold BAE accountable.”

The results of an eight-month investigation by the Marine Corps were released earlier year, with Marine Corp leadership saying the accident was “preventable” and a mix of mechanical failures in the aging AAV, lack of adherence to standard operating procedures and training, leadership failures and the demands of a pre-deployment training schedule amid a pandemic all contributed.

The families are barred from suing the military by the Feres Doctrine, which prevents service members and their families from filing suit against the federal government for wrongful deaths or injuries while serving.

The fallout from the accident has included removal of all those along the unit’s chain of command, including most recently relieving Major Gen. Robert Castellvi, the former commander of the 1st Marine Division, from his post as inspector general at the Pentagon.

A second, broader investigation by the Marines into how the units for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Force, with which the men were training for deployment, were assembled and a separate investigation by the Navy are still awaited.

In the meantime, the families are asking that the Marines not use the AAVs, or the newer Amphibious Combat Vehicles, until a new hatch system is developed. The ACVs – 36 are now based at Camp Pendleton – are being phased in to replace the AAVs, which the Marines first used in the early 1970s.

Bella Donna and partner Eric Dubin said while the Marines conducted their investigation, the attorneys spent the year having a new hatch designed  to make the vehicles safer by allowing it to open to the inside. Bella Donna said Marine veterans, engineers and people from the Department of Defense consulted on the design.

“We’ve designed an emergency system that will release the door in an imminent sinking,” Bella Donna said.

She added that they asked BAE to get involved. “We reached out to BAE and said, give us your engineers,” she said. “We didn’t get the help we wanted and now we want the public to know we have a solution that this will never happen again.”

Bella Donna said she and Dubin, who have an office in Newport Beach, and Timothy Loranger, of Los Angeles, representing several families, want the Marines to order the “AAVs and ACVs pulled until new egress systems are made.” 

“We are demanding from Congress that these changes be made,” Bella Donna said. “We want no money from Congress going to the military until these changes are made.”

Carlos and Evelyn Baltierra, whose son, rifleman Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, 18, of Corona, was the youngest to die in the accident, were at the press event.

“We’re here standing together as one,” Carlos Baltierra said of the families. “We are here to honor our boys and we’re here for each other.”

“We are looking for justice,” he said. “We want to make sure this information (on the defective hatch) gets back to the military and this never happens again.”

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