Four Marines injured in a gas line fire that engulfed their amphibious vehicle during a training exercise in 2017 have filed a federal lawsuit against the gas and pipeline companies responsible for the gas line operation and maintenance.
Cpl. Anthony Romero, Lance Cpls. Samuel Koontz, Nicholas Amrien and Tagen Schmidt are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in the Southern District of California, the area that covers Camp Pendleton.
The lawsuit alleges negligence and liability against San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas Company, Kinder Morgan G.P. Inc. and San Diego Pipeline Company.
Marine Corps Times reached out to companies named in the lawsuit. San Diego Gas & Electric responded with the following statement:
“We are aware of a gas incident that occurred on Camp Pendleton in September 2017. We investigated and determined that an SDG&E gas line was not involved. With respect to the lawsuit, we do not comment on pending litigation,” wrote Joseph Britton, communications manager.
Lexey Long with Kinder Morgan replied that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
The other companies did not respond immediately with comment.
Timothy Loranger, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Marine Corps Times that his clients did nothing wrong and were hit by the gas line explosion like a “booby trap.”
“They couldn’t have seen it, couldn’t have avoided it and it basically blew up in their face,” Loranger said. “This is basically like (the companies) leaving a landmine out in the field for these Marines to find by accident.”
All four of his clients are still serving on active-duty, some on limited status due to their injuries, Loranger said.
On Sept. 13, 2017, at 9:33 a.m. local time, 14 Marines and one Navy corpsman were conducting tactical movements in their amphibious assault vehicle in the San Mateo section of the Marine Corps Base.
The AAV got stuck in a ditch during maneuvers.
To get unstuck, the Marines attempted to rock the vehicle, revving the engine to high RPMs, and hit an exposed gas line that none of the witnesses had seen prior to striking it, according to a lawsuit from Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, the law firm representing the four Marines.
The AAV backfired, triggering a large explosion that enveloped the vehicle with flames as high as 20 feet, which lasted for six hours until the gas line could be secured.
One Marine, whose name was redacted from a report obtained by Marine Corps Times, saved the life of one of the badly burned victims, trapped by the flames.
“Immediately following the black plume was the explosion with a large fireball that covered the majority of the track,” the Marine said in a statement. “I saw the Marine from the T/C [troop commander] hatch and a pack catapult through the air from the AAV. Simultaneously, Marines inside the AAV started to pour over the sides of the vehicle.”
The intense flames created “a rolling blowtorch” effect, said the Marine, who ran to the back of the AAV, where he could see Marines trying to escape from the back hatch.
The Marine could hear someone shouting that 170 gallons of fuel was still on the burning vehicle.
“There was a lot of Marines screaming in pain and every Marine I saw had significant burns,” he said. “Once I got to the back hatch, I started to pull Marines out of the vehicle and handed them to someone behind me.”
The Marine could saw the fire was rapidly sweeping inside the troop compartment and toward the rear of the vehicle. One Marine was still inside, screaming as his hands and face burned.
“When I grabbed the Marine, he immediately went limp,” he said. “As I pulled him out of the hatch, his gear kept getting caught, which made it extremely difficult. With assistance from another Marine (not sure who), and with my foot on the back of the ramp/hatch to get more leverage, we were finally able to pull the Marine out.”
Immediately after the incident, eight of the 15 troops involved were sent to the Burn Center at University of California San Diego Health where five were listed in serious condition and three were listed in critical condition, Marine officials had said.
Four others were sent to the University of California Irvine Medical Center, where one was listed in serious condition while three were listed in critical condition.
The remaining Marines were treated for minor injuries.
All were members of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion.
The commanding general of 1st Marine Division at the time, Maj. Gen. Eric M. Smith, wrote a letter elaborating on the incident.
"It is clear that the Marines and Sailors participating in the training on 13 September 2017 could not have realistically prevented this incident. There were signs regarding the gas line, but those signs were not visible due to fading and the growth of brush around them. With that said, even if the signs had been clearly readable, the average person would interpret them to mean that no digging should occur in the vicinity of the gas line, but that driving in the area would be safe,” Smith wrote.
He had found no fault with the actions of the AAV driver.
“When the vehicle became momentarily stuck, he applied more power to his engine to move the vehicle out of the ditch,” Smith wrote. “There was nothing unsafe or unusual about this, and any experienced Amtrak operator would have done the same.”
In 2013, a 21-year-old Camp Pendleton Marine died and four others were injured when ordnance ignited an amphibious assault vehicle during a training exercise at Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, in the California desert.
The Marine Corps has since developed a safer mine clearing system for its amphibious assault vehicles.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.