Marine Corps officials said Wednesday they will continue to let units in Afghanistan use 60 mm mortars but maintain the suspension of their use in training until completing an investigation into why one malfunctioned, killing seven Marines Monday night during an exercise at the Hawthorne Army Depot.
“We do not know what caused the mortar system failure,” Lt. Col. Andrew J. McNulty, commander of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said in a statement.
“We lost seven Marines in a training accident where it appears that a 60 mm mortar system failed to function as designed,” his statement reads.
Three times in his statement, McNulty references failure of the weapon system, which involves ammunition rounds that are inserted into a firing tube and launched by propellants to provide high-angle, indirect fire at targets.
He gave no indication that human error or some other cause were factors in the disaster.
He said several teams of investigators are at the high-desert training site 320 miles northwest of Las Vegas and “are working around the clock, to determine what happened so we can prevent it from happening again.”
The explosion Monday caused an immediate suspension of the use of 60 mm mortars by the Marine Corps, with an exemption for troops in Afghanistan, U.S. military and Marine officials said.
Marine units on the war front may continue to use the 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, which will be in effect until the accident investigation is complete, largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
None of the dead Marines was from Nevada.
Seven others and a Navy corpsman were wounded and transported to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno for treatment and further evaluation.
The Navy corpsman was “very seriously injured,” according a release from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force public affairs office at Camp Lejeune.
Of the eight wounded, five were seriously injured and two were treated and released, according to the news release from Capt. Binford Strickland.
Citing the ongoing investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the public affairs chief, Master Sgt. J.D. Cress, responded to an email query saying he couldn’t immediately provide details of the accident scene, the number of Marines who were involved in the training exercise or the “type or types of munitions used at the time of the incident.”
In his statement, McNulty said the Marines had completed a winter mountain exercise March 11 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, where ammunition is stored in rows of 3,000 igloo-like bunkers.
Live-fire training at the Hawthorne depot began March 13.
“The Marines and sailors of 1/9 performed superbly throughout the training at both locations,” McNulty said.
“We expected to complete the exercise upon the conclusion of the night live-fire training, which we were in the process of executing on that fateful evening.”
He said the Marines’ and sailors’ response to the mishap to provide first aid for the injured “was 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,” he said.
“The Marines and sailors on scene did everything possible to care for and save those affected by the mortar system malfunction.”
Marines who belong to the Leatherneck Club in Las Vegas will hold a remembrance for the fallen at 6 p.m. Friday at the club, 4360 W. Spring Mountain Road.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.