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Report into California gas explosion that injured 15 US Marines says training area hazards need to be identified

12 December 2017

On September 13, an AAV7 armoured amphibious vehicle that went into a roadside ditch while on a training exercise at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, punctured a gas main and the ensuing leak caused a 20-foot pillar of flames that engulfed the vehicle. The 15 military personnel inside the vehicle were all injured, with at least nine in critical condition with severe burns immediately after the incident. 

AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle - Image: USMC
AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle - Image: USMC

The report claims all survived because they followed proper combat evacuation procedures and applied immediate first aid to the worst affected.

“Many of the facial and hand injuries might have been lessened if Marines had been wearing flame retardant clothing on those affected areas,” wrote Maj. Gen. Eric M. Smith, the commander of 1st Marine Division, on an endorsing document attached to the report.

Smith noted, however, that the AAV7 crew wore their special protective equipment and still suffered burns. Those flames were described by unnamed witnesses in the report as like a blowtorch in intensity.

Temperatures were so high that the gas pipe welded to the vehicle’s steel tread. Photographs included in the report show recovered weapons that appear melted in places, with warped barrels and missing metal pieces.

Along with the stream of natural gas, about 170 gallons of diesel fuel also fed the fire, which consumed the entire steel roof and the right side of the armoured vehicle.

The report revealed that the officials planning the exercise did not know that a Marine bulldozer three months earlier had ruptured the same line about 90 feet north of the September 13 accident, but the gas did not ignite and the operator was able to clear all personnel from the area.

The gas pipeline cut by both vehicles was painted grey and blended in with earth that had eroded during winter storms, exposing the pipe. Three nearby signs that might have warned of an underground hazard were faded by the sun and overgrown with weeds, investigators found.

The Range Control report noted that the troops had slept only about seven hours over two nights of training before the accident occurred, indicating sleep deprivation might have contributed to the calamity.

One of the Marine victims, Cpl. Carlos Tinoco, is suing San Diego Gas & Electric, which supplies natural gas to Camp Pendleton, alleging negligence. But the utility denies that the pipeline concerned belongs to the company, and other reports claim the line is operated by the US Government.

The report recommends all range roads at Pendleton be evaluated for safe travel by tracked vehicles, and all hazards clearly identified.

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