HAWTHORNE, Nev. — A mortar shell explosion killed at least seven Marines and injured seven more during mountain warfare training in Nevada’s high desert, prompting the Pentagon to immediately halt the use of the weapons until an investigation can determine their safety, officials said Tuesday.
The explosion occurred Monday night at the Hawthorne Army Depot, a sprawling facility used by troops heading overseas, during an exercise involving the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Several Marines from the unit were injured in the blast, authorities said.
The mortar round exploded in its firing tube during the exercise, Brig. Gen. Jim Lukeman said at a news conference at Camp Lejeune. He said investigators were trying to determine the cause of the malfunction.
The Pentagon expanded a temporary ban to prohibit the military from firing any 60mm mortar rounds until the results of the investigation are in. The Marine Corps said a “blanket suspension” of 60mm mortars and associated firing tubes is in effect.
The Pentagon earlier had suspended use of all high-explosive and illumination mortar rounds that were in the same manufacturing lots as ones fired in Nevada.
It was not immediately clear whether more than a single round exploded, a Marine Corps official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation.
The Marine Corps said early Tuesday that seven Marines were killed. Eight men under the age of 30 were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. One of them died, four were in serious condition, two were in fair condition and another was discharged, said spokesman Mark Earnest.
John Stroud, national junior vice commander in chief for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, began a memorial event in Hawthorne on Tuesday night by saying, “One of the critical has passed,” bringing the death toll to eight. Stroud said he spoke with Marine officers from Camp Lejeune who gave him the news before the ceremony. Messages left for a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force were not immediately returned.
The identities of those killed won’t be released until 24 hours after their families are notified.
The rescue was complicated by the remoteness of the site, which is favored because the harsh geography simulates conditions in Afghanistan.
The 60mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate, but it is common during training for others to observe nearby. The firing tube is supported in a tripodlike design and fires roughly a 3-pound shell, about 14 inches in length and a bit larger than 2 inches in diameter.
The Marine Corps official said a worldwide moratorium after such an accident is not unusual and would persist until the investigation determines that the weapon did not malfunction in ways that would hurt other Marines or that mortar shells manufactured at the same time as the one involved in the accident were safe.