More than three weeks have passed since an explosion at Hawthorne’s Army Depot killed seven U.S. Marines and injured seven others, and the town is still in mourning.
Hawthorne, the Mineral County seat, has long billed itself as “America’s Patriotic Home,” and “everyone in Hawthorne is taking personally the deaths and injuries of our young Marines,” said Shelley Hartmann, a community leader and executive director of the Mineral County Economic Development Authority.
“Our residents are still placing flowers at the memorial to the fallen Marines that has been erected at Veterans Memorial Park, and people continue to come to the memorial to reflect and pray,” she said this week.
Hartmann was at home when the 60mm mortar round exploded at about 10 p.m. on March 18 during a live-fire exercise that killed seven and injured seven Marines who were members of the Second Marine Division which is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“It was not long before my phone was ringing off the hook.... out-of-town clients and friends began calling to see if I was OK because, apparently, the initial reports of the explosion didn’t say if it had been confined to the base,” she said.
Heidi Bunch, office manager and a reporter for Hawthorne’s weekly newspaper the Mineral County Independent-News (its page one masthead bears the slogan “America’s Patriotic Home”), said she, too, was at home when the mortar round exploded.
“In an hour or so, I could hear the rescue helicopters flying over town. It was a terrible day for Hawthorne,” according to Bunch, who said the dead and injured Marines will be honored during the community’s annual Armed Forces Day parade to be held in downtown Hawthorne beginning at noon on Saturday, May 18.
“A float in the parade will honor the Marines, and on the float will be displayed photographs of those killed and injured. It will be a very moving occasion. We are still grieving here,” she said.
Moments after the explosion, members of Hawthorne’s Volunteer Fire Dept., EMTs, paramedics and doctors and nurses from Mt. Grant General Hospital here arrived at the base to assist military medics.
“Our ambulances transported the injured Marines to Mt. Grant where they were treated by two doctors and five nurses,” said hospital administrator Richard Munger.
“It was decided that the injured must be transported to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, and Careflight helicopters were flown to our hospital to take the injured Marines to Reno. But because of rain and thick clouds in Hawthorne, the injured were taken by ambulance to Yerington where the flying weather was better. From Yerington, they were flown to Reno,” he continued.
“I’m proud of how our hospital staff performed following the explosion. Everyone did their job well. We constantly train for disasters, and the training paid off,” Munger said.
Ironically, Hawthorne’s ammunition depot was built in the remote Nevada desert because of a similar explosion that occurred in 1926 at the Navy Ammunition Depot in heavily-populated New Jersey which killed 21, seriously injured 53 and virtually destroyed the facility.
A Congressional investigation followed and Congress in 1928 voted to demolish the New Jersey ammo plant and replicate the facility at rural and isolated Hawthorne.
Completed in 1930, the Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot served as a critical storage facility for bombs, ammunition and rockets during World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
In 1977, the base was turned over to the Army and a civilian contractor. In 2005, the base was included on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list, but it was dropped from the list because of pressure brought by Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and state political figures and the realization that the base, while continuing to store ammunition, also was being increasingly utilized for desert warfare training conducted by the Marines, Marine Corps Reserve, active Army, Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Navy Seals.
Mineral County’s terrain, altitude and weather are similar to those found in Afghanistan, and from Hawthorne some of the soldiers, sailors and Marines training there are transported to NAS Fallon and desert areas in Churchill County for further training maneuvers.
The Marines Corps is conducting an inquiry to determine the cause of the March 18 explosion, and Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox, commander of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, said, “We mourn the loss and injuries of our men. It is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice.”
David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.