Seven Marines were killed Monday night after an explosion during a training exercise at the Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada.
A 60 mm mortar exploded during a live-fire training exercise about 10 p.m. as troops from the 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., were planning to fire it.
The Marine Corps issued an indefinite moratorium on firing all 60 mm mortars worldwide until an investigation clears the weapon and ammunition as safe.
The mortar round exploded in its firing tube, officials said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The 60 mm 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 is under investigation.
The Marines were training in an area about six miles south of Hawthorne known as “Old Bomb.”
Eight other people injured in the explosion were being treated Tuesday at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, said spokeswoman Stacy Kendall.
Three patients were in serious condition and five were in fair condition with various injuries, including penetration wounds, fractures and vascular injuries, she said.
The identities of those killed will be released 24 hours after next-of-kin notification, officials said in a statement from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune.
“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 Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox in a statement. “We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice.”
Zip Upham, Naval Air Station Fallon public affairs officer, said the Search and Rescue team was on alert but did not launch. He said Care Flight out of Reno was able to transport the wounded to Renown.
Upham, though, said Navy personnel are assisting a Marine casualty assistance officer by helping family members travel to Reno to see the injured Marines.
Hawthorne, population 3,000, is 70 miles south of Fallon. The depot stores and disposes ammunition, is spread over 226 square miles and is one of the largest in the world.
It’s not unusual for military personnel to use the depot for more than storage.
The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center is about 60 miles west in Pickel Meadow, Calif., and Marines often travel to Hawthorne for live-fire training, according to a Marine Corps publication.
The Mountain Warfare Training Center has 46,000 acres, but the land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture.
“The land is open to public use, and military operations understandably cannot adversely impact civilian use or the environment,” wrote the Marine Corps Gazette. “(Hawthorne) includes training support infrastructure and high-angle fire ranges, as well as a company-sized urban complex and combat outposts.”
From Hawthorne, Marines can then travel 60 miles north to Naval Air Station Fallon, which includes a battalion-sized urban training facility.
Marine Master Sgt. J.D. Cress at Camp Lejeune said the Corps has trained troops at the depot for a “very long time.”
“There’s a variety of training that takes place there,” he said. “It’s not narrowly focused.”
Cress said the desert mimics the terrain and weather in Afghanistan.
“As best as possible we try to have realistic training environments, which would include desert training,” he said.
The Hawthorne Army Depot is a popular high-altitude, desert training site for other branches of the military, said a person familiar with the site. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
Earlier this year, Navy Seals were training at Hawthorne, including conducting mountain maneuvers and drops into Walker Lake.
“There is a ton of training and a lot of secret stuff going on out there,” he said. “Hawthorne is a very big deal. And they’re really good at what they do out there. That’s why this accident is so shocking. They’ve gone so long without any kind of incident.”
The depot opened in 1930 in isolated Hawthorne after an earlier explosion in an ammunition depot in New Jersey in which 21 people were killed.
Because of its isolation, Hawthorne was considered a safer place to store ammunition. Ammunition is stored in rows of 3,000 igloo-like bunkers stretching miles in all directions.
Even today the depot is extremely isolated in its location south of Walker Lake.
During World War II, the ammunition depot stored most of the bombs and ammunition used in the war in the Pacific. More than 5,000 people worked at the depot during the war and the town of Babbit was created adjacent to the base.
Babbit faded into history soon after the war.
But in 2006, the Defense Department moved to close the depot, leading to a concerted effort by Nevada’s congressional delegation to keep it open because the city of Hawthorne depends on it.
Monday’s deaths prompted swift condolences from Nevada’s governor and congressional delegation.
“My thoughts are with those who were injured,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the floor of the Senate.
“My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives. And my sympathies are with their fellow Marines, who are also grieving this loss.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval echoed Reid’s comments.
“The men and women who work and train there put service ahead of self each and every day. Kathleen and I wish to 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.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck said the tragedy underscores the dangers facing troops at home or overseas.
“I will continue to watch this situation closely and my staff and I stand ready to assist in any way we can in the wake of this horrible event,” Heck said in a statement.
Reid also cited the accident in a call for Congress to reverse spending cuts.
“These men and women — our Marines — were training at Hawthorne, and with the sequester it is going to cut this stuff back,” Reid said. “This sequester should go away. It is just not appropriate that our military can’t train and do the maintenance necessary.”
Horsford said he knew of no evidence that corners might have been cut on safety at Hawthorne, due to the sequester. He said, “The investigation will be forthcoming and I’m sure we will get all the facts at the appropriate time.”
At Nellis Air Force Base, where a throng of leaders and community supporters were celebrating the arrival of the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets Tuesday, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Lofgren said the tragedy put a damper on the morning.
“It is a sad day anytime we lose lives out there,” Lofgren, Warfare Center commander, told reporters after the arrival ceremony.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families,” he said. “It makes it more important for us, and more poignant for us about the mission here at Nellis and what we’re focused on. We need to stay focused on that if we’re going to be successful in the future protecting those Marines.”