A Convention Center billboard asks people to pray for the Marines that were… (Marilyn Newton / Associated…)
HAWTHORNE, Nev. -- As investigators continued Wednesday to probe the cause of an explosion that killed seven Marines during a training exercise here, residents in this remote military town mourned the loss of service personnel who are part of their “military family.”
“It’s unusually quiet around here,” said Glenn Carns, general manager of El Capitan Lodge & Casino. “We’ve lost seven members of our military family who were helping defend our country. It’s the same as if they had died in battle.”
Late Monday night, 60-millimeter mortar round exploded at the Hawthorne Army Depot outside Reno, killing seven Marines and injuring seven Marines and one sailor. The dead and injured were from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, with headquarters at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The round exploded in mortar tube during a live-fire training maneuvers, officials said.
The 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.
Marine Master Sgt. Jonathan Cress, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said the Marine Corps has suspended the use of all 60-mm mortar weapon systems and munitions, in training and overseas, including the war in Afghanistan. The suspension also applies to the U.S. Army, said David Foster, an Army spokesman.
The mortars are often used in combat by infantry units. A crew of three or four Marines usually operates a 60-millimeter mortar, but there are often other Marines observing, especially in training exercises.
The Marine Corps said the names of those killed and injured will be released Wednesday night, following notification of next of kin.
News of the deaths rallied the town of Hawthorne in Mineral County. Hundreds of the county’s 4,500 residents crowded shoulder to shoulder around a towering American flag at a community park Tuesday night to honor the dead and injured.
The service was led by Veterans of Foreign Wars members in somber dark blue suits and was one of the largest displays of public support ever seen in this town, with the exception of the annual Armed Forces Day parade, which attracts as many as 7,000 celebrants.
Now, residents of this hodgepodge of modest homes, small businesses, casinos, veterans organizations and one stoplight are grappling with tearful vigils, community gatherings and a military investigation.
During the memorial, casino workers clutched American flags. Veterans showed little children how to place their hands over their hearts. Many people held candles and wore red artificial “Buddy Poppies” pinned on their lapels and shirt pockets. Proceeds from sales of the flowers purchased with donations would go to loved ones of the Marines killed and injured.
They all felt ties with the Marines. The Hawthorne Army Depot is the economic engine to their town and the pain of the losses resonated through the entire community. Many years ago, the town slogan was changed from “America’s Arsenal” to “America’s Patriotic Home.”
Among those in attendance was Shirley Schmuck, 72, who was born and raised in Hawthorne.
Staring up at the flag at half staff, her eyes welling with tears, she said, “We’re devastated. Those were our boys.”
The circumstances of the tragedy brought renewed attention to base’s mission -- to facilitate the armament of the nation’s armed forces. But Schmuck shrugged off any suggestion that the Mineral County seat of Hawthorne was a dangerous place to live and work.
“We feel safe here,” she said.
“Hawthorne is a unique place,” Mineral County Atty. Sean Rowe said, “that has adopted a sense of patriotism that speaks to a bygone era.”
Cassie Dore, owner of the Refinery Restaurant, agrees. “Our sense of community comes from a powerful military link,” said Dore, 36.
Dore was planning “a good old-fashioned Hawthorne-style spaghetti feast” for Wednesday evening. “Folks can buy dinner with donations,” she said. “The proceeds will go to the families of the Marines who died.”
“The feast will also make us a little bit stronger,” she added. “We are a family in good times and bad.”
Marine Corps officials Wednesday reaffirmed that seven Marines were killed. Seven other Marines and one Navy corpsman were injured, said Marine Master Sgt. Jonathan Cress, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
There was some discrepancy about the number of injured.
Cress said the Marine Corps report of eight injuries came directly from the unit commander.
In a statement, the Marine Corps said two of the injured have been treated for minor injuries and released. The Navy corpsman is very seriously injured, the statement said, and five Marines are seriously injured.
A spokesman for Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno said he can't speak for the Marine Corps, but said the hospital received eight patients -- one who died and six that remain hospitalized. Spokesman Mark Earnest said only one patient was released.
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