Marine officers relieved of command after seven killed in blast at Nevada base

The battalion commander and two other Marine Corps officers in charge of a March training exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot where seven Marines were killed by a mortar explosion have been relieved of their commands, a 2nd Marine Division spokesman confirmed Thursday.

The dismissals of Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, Capt. Kelby Breivogel and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring comes as investigators are wrapping up their probe of the March 18 training accident, which killed seven and left seven other Marines and a sailor wounded.

Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, commander of the 2nd Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C., relieved the officers Wednesday because of his “loss of confidence in their ability to continue their duties with the battalion,” spokesman 1st Lt. Oliver David said.

Lukeman’s decision “was influenced by preliminary findings within the investigation,” he said.

Steve Lowery, a retired Marine major from Las Vegas and Vietnam War Navy Cross recipient, said the dismissals indicate the investigation team’s findings point more toward human or procedural errors than a malfunction of the mortar system or its ammunition.

“If there’s a hidden time bomb, if a piece of gear malfunctioned or ammunition aged in the box, who can foresee that? No person is going to be responsible for that,” Lowery said.

David said the investigation is in its final stages.

“It could take a few weeks or longer for release of the findings, depending on if any new findings are discovered,” he said.

A suspension of the use of 60 mm M224A1 mortars ordered in the wake of the explosion remains in effect, though that might change as the investigation concludes.

David, the 2nd Division public affairs officer, said none of the officers relieved of command was available for comment late Thursday.

He said they remain on active duty awaiting future assignments with Maj. Thomas Siverts, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment commanding the battalion in place of Lt. Col. McNulty.

In a statement after the tragedy, as investigators converged on the high-desert training site 320 miles northwest of Las Vegas, McNulty had said “it appears that a 60 mm mortar system failed to function as designed.”

He made three references to failure of the weapon system, which involves shells dropped down a firing tube and launched by propellants to provide high-angle, indirect fire at targets.

The widely used 60 mm mortar usually requires two or three Marines to operate.

However, it is common during training for others to observe nearby.

It’s unclear what kind of mortar shell was in use.

The incident involved a unit that had completed a winter mountain exercise at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, Calif.

The center uses 46,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Pickel Meadow, Calif., which is about 60 miles west of the Hawthorne Army Depot.

At the depot, ammunition is stored in 3,000 bunkers.

Live-fire training at Hawthorne began March 13 and was to conclude with the nighttime exercise “that fateful evening,” McNulty said.

He described the response to the explosion as “nothing short of heroic.”

“There were numerous acts of selflessness as our injured cared for each other and directed corpsmen to care for more severely injured before being treated themselves,” McNulty said in a statement.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.