Report: Pendleton Marines Knew About Exposed Gas Main That Injured 15 In Fiery Explosion
An investigation into a fiery accident at Camp Pendleton that injured 14 Marines and a Navy corpsman in September showed that the Marines were aware of the potential danger.
The fire happened on Sept. 13 during a training exercise. KPBS obtained a copy of the 210-page command investigation report through a Freedom of Information Act request. The report absolves the troops on board of any responsibility for the accident, which placed at least nine Marines in critical condition with severe burns.
The report confirms that an amphibious assault vehicle struck a natural gas main. The report also revealed that this was the second accident involving the same gas main in less than two months.
A piece of heavy equipment cut the gas main on June 26, however, the gas did not ignite. After the second accident in September, investigators found sections of the gas main were fully exposed from erosion along the same stretch of Basilone Road. Pictures show the gas line was also not well marked and that signs marking the line were faded and obscured by brush.
The Marines confirmed the gas main was owned by the U.S. government, not SDG&E, though the family of one of the burned Marines has filed a lawsuit naming the utility company.
The report recommends all range roads at Pendleton be evaluated for safe travel by tracked vehicles.
In a written statement released Monday, Maj. Gen. Eric Smith, commanding general, 1st Marine Division, said the findings have been forwarded to the Commanding General of Marine Corps Installations West, which has control over Pendleton.
“Military training is an inherently dangerous task ... My commitment is to ensure that our training is as safe as possible. The training we conduct ensures our readiness to respond to any task we are assigned,” Smith said.
The report states the crew on board the AAV could not have prevented the accident. The morning of the accident, the armored personnel carrier moved to the side of the road to make way for a passing vehicle. The vehicle’s track ruptured the gas main as it tried to come back onto the road. A spark from inside the AAV likely ignited the gas, sending flames 20 feet into the air.
The report describes a harrowing scene. The cabin was quickly engulfed by flames. A witness tried to describe the fire, saying instead of a wood fire, the flame looked like a rolling blowtorch. Pictures show the armored personnel carrier melted in the fire.
The report commends the quick action of Marines on the ground. A crew shut off the gas main. Others rushed to help the injured. The report recommends one rescuer be awarded the Navy and Marine Corp Medal for pulling a trapped Marine from the burning vehicle.
Several of the injured were flown by helicopter to nearby hospitals. The last Marine has been released from Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The unnamed Marine had burns over more than half of his body. At least six Marines have had skin grafts and are undergoing long-term rehabilitation.