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Mortar explosion blamed for 7 Marine deaths at Nevada training site

March 19, 2013|By David Zucchino, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Michael Muskal

A live ammunition training exercise erupted in an explosion that killed seven Marines and injured at least seven others at a storied Nevada military munitions depot, officials said Tuesday.

The explosion, which occurred about 10 p.m. Monday night at the Hawthorne Army Depot, is under investigation, military officials said. All of the Marines were from the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C., military officials said.

At least eight Marines were taken to the Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Mark Earnest, a spokeswoman for Renown told the Los Angeles Times by telephone.

One of those Marines is dead, according to a Marine spokesman in Washington.

Of the injured, one Marine was treated and released, according to spokesman Earnest. Five were in serious condition and one was in fair condition.

Those being treated had sustained wounds including “penetrating traumas, fractures and vascular injuries,” he said.

None of the dead or injured have been named pending notification of their families, according to the military.

The training in Nevada involved live-fire ranges and the handling of ammunition and explosives, said Master Sgt. Jonathan Cress, a Marine spokesman at Camp Lejeune. Army spokesman George Wright told The Times that the explosion was caused by “a 60-millimeter mortar round that was lodged in the tube” during a training exercise.

There is usually a crew of three or four Marines operating a 60-millimeter mortar, but there are often other Marines observing. It was unclear from the initial reports whether a live round had exploded too early or whether there was some other form of misfire of several rounds.

The Hawthorne facility is about 140 miles south of Reno, Nevada, in a desolate area serviced by the small town of Hawthorne, which has a population of about 5,000. The remoteness of the facility is by design.

In 1926, an explosion destroyed the ammunition storage and production complex at Lake Denmark, New Jersey, killing hundreds of people in nearby towns. The Hawthorne facility, then operated by the Navy, was built in a sparsely populated area of Nevada as a replacement. It 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. Hawthorne also served as an important ammunition center during the Korean and  Vietnam wars, growing to several thousand structures on 236 square miles of land.

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 Corporation is the current operating contractor. In 1994, the facility received its current name of the Hawthorne Army Depot, according to the facility’s website.

Despite the name changes, the mission has remained the same: “to receive, renovate, maintain, store and issue ammunition, explosives, expendable ordnance items and/or weapons and technical ordnance material.”

 “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 the force's commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox. “We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice.”

Nevada's top officials also mourned.

“My thoughts are with those who were injured,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said on the floor of the Senate. “My sympathies are with their fellow Marines, who are also grieving this loss.

 “I am deeply saddened to hear of the incident at the Hawthorne Army Depot this morning,” Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement. “The men and women who work and train there put service ahead of self each and every day. ... [We] extend our deepest sympathies to those killed and their families. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been injured and we pray for their speedy recovery."

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