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Nevada town mourns victims of military training blast

The mortar explosion at the Hawthorne Army Depot that killed seven Marines and injured eight leaves the local community devastated.

March 19, 2013|By Tony Perry, David Zucchino and Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, speaks about the mortar explosion that killed seven Marines in Hawthorne, Nev.
At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general… (Allen Breed / Associated…)

HAWTHORNE, Nev. — As the U.S. has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has considered the sprawling and remote Hawthorne Army Depot an invaluable site for realistic training — its wide-open spaces supporting live-fire exercises, its climate, elevation and terrain similar to much of Afghanistan.

But with realism comes danger. On Monday night a 60-millimeter mortar round exploded at the facility outside Reno, killing at least seven Marines and injuring eight — seven Marines and a Navy corpsman. The Marine casualties were from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, with headquarters at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, said the accident occurred when a round exploded in a mortar tube during "live-fire and maneuver training."

"Our hearts go out to you," Lukeman said Tuesday, referring to the families of the victims. "We appreciate your sacrifice.... We send our prayers and condolences.... We remember their courage and sacrifice."

The unit has been training for the last month at Hawthorne Army Depot and the nearby Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, Calif., Lukeman told reporters at Camp Lejeune.

He declined to name the unit involved, citing the ongoing notification of the families of the victims. He said the exercise was "readiness training," preparing the Marines "to do the things the nation asks us to do."

An investigation is expected to determine whether the mortar tube was improperly loaded or whether the firing pin, round or tube were defective. The 60-millimeter round is one of the military's smaller projectiles; the tube is designed to be easily assembled and fired during combat.

A crew of three or four Marines usually operates a 60-millimeter mortar, but there are often other Marines observing.

The Marine Corps said it had suspended all uses of 60-millimeter rounds, for training or in Afghanistan, until a review of the explosion was complete.

The injured were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. The most seriously injured were suffering "penetrating traumas, fractures and vascular injuries," according to a hospital spokesman. One Marine was treated and released.

At a Tuesday evening memorial service, several hundred people, many of them veterans of foreign wars in austere dark-blue suits, gathered around a large American flag at Veterans Memorial Park. Under gunmetal gray skies, they prayed, consoled one another and honored the fallen.

They all felt connected with the Marines, the Hawthorne Army Depot and the suffering of the community of about 3,500 people, many of whom work at the base. Many years ago, the town's slogan was changed from "America's Arsenal" to "America's Patriotic Home."

Confusion arose over the death toll when a speaker told mourners that an eighth person had died. But the Marines said the toll remained seven.

The 10-minute memorial was one of the largest displays of public support seen in this town, with the exception of the annual parade that begins in Veterans Memorial Park.

Shirley Schmuck, 72, stared at the towering flag flying at half-staff, her eyes welling with tears. "We're devastated," she said. "Those were our boys."

The 147,000-acre Hawthorne facility is about 140 miles southeast of Reno, in a desolate area serviced by the small town of Hawthorne. The remoteness of the facility is by design.

In 1926, an explosion destroyed the ammunition storage and production complex at Lake Denmark, N.J., killing 21 people and severely damaging nearby towns. The Hawthorne facility, then operated by the Navy, was built in a sparsely populated area of Nevada as a replacement and received its first shipment of arms and high explosives in 1930.

When the United States entered World War II, the rechristened Navy Ammunition Depot became the staging area for bombs, rockets and ammunition. Employment was at its highest at 5,625 in 1945. By 1948, the depot occupied about 104 square miles.

In 1977, the depot was transferred to the Army and renamed the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant. In 1980, it was redesignated as a government-owned, contractor-operated facility.

Day & Zimmermann Hawthorne Corp. is the operating contractor. In 1994, the facility received its current name, according to the facility's website.

In 2005, the depot was on the Base Realignment and Closure list, targeted for closure to save money. But strenuous opposition from the Marine Corps, and support from Nevada's congressional delegation, kept it open. Much of the training is done in an area named for Marine Lance Cpl. Timothy Carter, posthumous recipient of the Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam.

With its proximity to the Mountain Warfare Training Center, Hawthorne is used by the Marine Corps for troops preparing to deploy and reservists training to stay sharp.

"We send our prayers and condolences to the families of Marines involved in this tragic incident. We remain focused on ensuring that they are supported through this difficult time," said Marine Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. "We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said on the Senate floor: "My sympathies are with their fellow Marines, who are also grieving this loss."

Perry reported from San Diego, Zucchino from North Carolina and Sahagun from Hawthorne, Nev. Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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