Seven U.S. Marines were killed and several others were wounded Monday when a mortar exploded prematurely inside is firing tube during mountain training exercises at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. It's unclear what caused the malfunction.The Associated Press has tenatively identified the unit that was assigned to the Hawthorne Army Depot as the 2nd Marine Expiditionary Force based out of Camp Lejune, NC- although the names won't be released until after the families have been notified.
The accident prompted the Marine Corps to immediately halt use of some mortar shells until an investigation can determine its safety.
The Corps on Tuesday announced a "blanket suspension of 60mm mortars and associated tubes" in effect until review of the incident at Hawthorne is complete.
The 60mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate but it's common during training for others to observe nearby.
The cause of the incident remains under investigation. The investigation will focus on whether the Marines followed procedures to properly fire the weapon, whether there was a malfunction in the firing device or in the explosive mortar itself, the official said.
Earlier, Russ Collier, an official at the facility, told KRNV-TV that the explosion was an accident unrelated to the ammunition that is stored at the military facility near the small desert community of Hawthorne.
Hawthorne Army Depot is a 226 square mile facility that stores and disposes of ammunition for the United States military some 140 miles southeast of Reno, NV. In recent years, the facility has been used as a training ground because conditions in the high Nevada desert are similar to what soldiers and Marines could expect in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, an impromptu memorial was held in the nearby town of Hawthorne to honor the Marines killed in the explosion.
Less than a day after the Marines were killed by a mortar explosion during a training exercise in the western Nevada desert, Hume stood inside the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum surrounded by decommissioned ammunition on display. The military-centric town of 3,200 people relies on the Hawthorne Army Depot, a sprawling facility filled with military munitions.The Hawthorne Army Depot was opened in 1930, a few years after a lightning-sparked explosion at New Jersey's Lake Denmark Nacal Ammunition Depot killed more than 20 people and heavily damaged the Picatinny Army Arsenal and surrounding communities as the fires burned for days afterwards.
“I’m always glad to see all these trainees come in here, and then to have something like this happen is really, really — it hurts,” Hume said, tearing up. “It hurts.”
First responders, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and hundreds of people from Hawthorne gathered at the Veterans Memorial Park to memorialize the victims of the blast. The Marines came from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“This kind of stuff is very tragic and painful,” said Rosemary Redmon, who lives in Hawthorne. “It’s a very close community, and we are very proud that we are able to help the country to train our soldiers.”
Miles Wertz rode to the memorial with his fellow members of the Iron Nation motorcycle group to honor the Marines who died.
“It’s just terrible,” he said. “We’re down here to show support for the families and pay tribute to the fallen Marines.”
John Stroud, the junior vice commander in chief of the VFW who also lives in Hawthorne, led the vigil and placed a wreath in the Marines’ honor.
“We’ve got to cooperate with the officials as much as possible to get the investigations done thoroughly and accurately so that hopefully we can prevent these things from happening again,” he said after the ceremony.