Details Emerge in Deadly Rollover Crash that Led to Charges Against Driver as Marines Identify Victims

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Lance Cpl. Jonathan E. Gierke and Pfc. Zachary W. Riffle
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jonathan E. Gierke, left, and Pfc. Zachary W. Riffle (right) pose for recruit training graduation photos at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. (U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps has released the names of the two victims of Wednesday's deadly vehicle rollover as authorities begin to reveal more information about what caused the deadly crash that led to charges against a Marine driving near Camp Lejeune.

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol said that the medium tactical vehicle replacement (MTVR) -- often called a "7-ton" -- that the Marines were in rolled over near the intersection of North Carolina Highway 210 and U.S. Highway 17, ejecting the 17 Marines who were "in the back area of the vehicle."

"A second military vehicle being operated behind the initial vehicle was unable to come to a stop and struck one of the ejected passengers," the statement added.

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The Marine Corps, in a statement released Friday, identified the two Marines who lost their lives as Lance Cpl. Jonathan Gierke, 19, and Pfc. Zachary Riffle, 18.

Both men, who were pronounced dead at the scene, had been in the Corps less than a year, having entered active duty in March 2021.

The state agency said that the driver of the overturned vehicle, 19-year-old Luis Ponce Barrera of Springfield, Tennessee, was charged with one count of exceeding a safe speed and two counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

A Marine Corps spokesman, 1st Lt. Kevin Stapleton, confirmed that a lance corporal by that name was the driver, but directed questions about the investigation to the State Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Marcus Bethea from the State Highway Patrol said that Barrera was one of the 17 Marines taken to a hospital after the crash where he was "charged by way of uniform citation."

According to the statement announcing the names of the two Marines who perished, Gierke was from Lawrenceville, Georgia, while Riffle was from Kingwood, West Virginia. Both Marines were landing support specialists with Combat Logistics Battalion 24.

"My sincerest heartfelt condolences are extended to the family, friends, and colleagues of the Marines who lost their lives or were injured in Wednesday's vehicle mishap," Brig. Gen. Forrest C. Poole III, the commanding general of 2nd Marine Logistics Group, said in the statement.

Criminal charges in vehicle accidents incidents are not unusual. In 2015, Cpl. Bin Guo pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and reckless driving with injury before a military judge. Guo was driving a 7-ton at Camp Pendleton, California, when he took a turn too fast, skidded off the road, and slammed into an electrical pole. The incident left one Marine dead and 18 others injured, some critically.

In 2020, a staff sergeant was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to three years of confinement for rolling a truck and killing a West Point cadet.

Some safety advocates, however, argue that focusing on charging the driver misses the larger, more systemic issues of culture and safety that often lead to accidents like this.

Michael McDowell, a fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank, has long argued that military leaders need to be held accountable. McDowell's son, 1st Lt. H. Conor McDowell, 24, was killed in a rollover at Camp Pendleton on May 9, 2019.

"I think it is all very well to charge a 19-year-old driver but where is the chain of command and flag officer class in this?" McDowell told Military.com in an email.

"They set the standards on training and safety and they blame down," he added.

Bethea said that the State Highway Patrol will investigate the fatal rollover and that "a publicly available crash report will be available at the conclusion of the investigation."

However, he did note that "fatal crash investigations are lengthy and require an extensive approval process ... it will likely be several weeks before the crash report is available."

Stapleton said that the Corps is conducting its own investigation on the incident.

The Marine Corps announced that two Marines are still at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in stable condition -- upgraded from critical two days ago. One Marine remains at the Naval Medical Center at Camp Lejeune, also in stable condition.

The remaining 14 Marines who were injured "have been discharged from medical care and have returned to their parent commands."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Two Marines Are Dead, 17 Injured in Truck Rollover in North Carolina. Driver Charged.

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