HAWTHORNE — Hundreds of residents in a rural community steeped in military history turned out to mourn the loss of seven Marines as investigators arrived at an ammunition depot to try to determine how a mortar shell exploded at the Nevada base and sent shrapnel flying into troops during a training exercise.
Families with children clutching small American flags were among the nearly 300 people who attended the brief memorial service Tuesday, where a trumpeter played taps at a city park as a giant American flag flew at half-staff across the street from the base at dusk.
Marine officers from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who arrived at the Hawthorne Army Depot on Tuesday, could not attend the memorial, as they began the task of figuring out what caused a mortar shell to explode in its firing tube. The accident prompted the Pentagon to restrict the use of the weapons until an investigation can determine their safety, officials said.
“Although this is a very difficult time for the entire depot and our small town, we will continue to work closely with the Marine Corps during this tragic incident,” said Lt. Col. Craig M. Short, commander of the Hawthorne Army Depot, in a statement Wednesday.
The explosion Monday night at the sprawling facility involved the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune. Seven men were killed and eight were injured, officials said. A Navy corpsman is among those hurt.
Hawthorne has been an important installation in American military history since World War II, when it was the staging area for ammunition, bombs and rockets. The 230-square-mile facility has downsized in recent years but still serves as a munitions repository and disposal site, along with being a training facility for troops as they take advantage of terrain and climate similar to places like Afghanistan.
Even though the Marines were from the other side of the country, locals still feel a strong sense of pride in the military because the town’s history is so deeply tied to the armed forces.
The town calls itself “America’s Patriotic Home” and is home to the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, which displays hundreds of shells, munitions, battery guns and weapons dating to World War II. Storefronts carry names like Patriot’s Plaza. The sign on a business Thursday carried the message, “Please Pray For Our Marines.”
“The evening of March 18, 2013, will forever be remembered as a moment of profound tragedy in Mineral County,” District Attorney Sean Rowe told the memorial service. “You have given meaning to the phrase, ‘America’s Patriotic Home.’”
Meanwhile, training, drill and routine continued Wednesday at Camp Lejeune. A patrol of about a dozen Marines marched at the direction of a drill master. Service men and women filtered into a recreation center to pass time between tasks. Barracks for single officers were desolate as Marines reported to their assignments.
The 50,000 uniformed troops based along North Carolina’s southeastern coast rallied around their fallen as notices went out to family and brothers in arms.
The impact of the accident was immediately felt.
According to U.S. military and Marine officials, use of 60 mm mortars has been suspended by the Marine Corps, but there is an exemption for troops in Afghanistan. Marine units on the warfront may continue to use the 60 mm mortars with the review and approval of their commanders. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said they have not stopped using the mortars there.
The suspension largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
Officials said the suspension will be effective until the investigation into the accident has been completed. After that, they said it is likely the suspension would be lifted.
The U.S. Army has halted the use of the two lots of ammunition that were involved in the accident. Army officials have issued no similar broader ban.
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 mortar has changed little since World War II and remains one of the simplest weapons to operate, which is why it is found at the lowest level of infantry units, said Joseph Trevithick, a mortar expert with Global Security.org.
“Basically, it’s still a pipe and it’s got a firing pin at the bottom,” Trevithick said. Still, a number of things could go wrong, such as a fuse malfunction, a problem with the barrel’s assembly, or a round prematurely detonating inside the tube, he said.
Renown hospital emergency physician Dr. Michael Morkin said at a Reno news conference that some of the injured Marines he treated were conscious and “knew something happened but didn’t know what.” Morkin said the Marines mostly suffered blunt force trauma from shrapnel.
“They’re injuries of varying severity ... to varying parts of the body. They’re complicated injuries to deal with,” he said.
The Hawthorne depot opened in 1930, and has seen three other fatal explosions since then, according to retired Nevada state archivist Guy Rocha.
An Oct. 1, 1951, blast killed five people, another on Sept. 3, 1966, killed two men, and a rocket explosion on May 26, 1971, killed three, Rocha said.