WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the safety of its mortars following an explosion Monday night during a warfare training exercise in Nevada that killed eight Marines.
The Marines from a North Carolina unit were killed when a 60mm mortar exploded unexpectedly at a Nevada military depot that's an important training facility for troops headed overseas, a Marine Corps official said.
The Marines immediately issued an indefinite moratorium on firing of all such mortars worldwide until an investigation clears as safe the type of weapon and ammunition in the tragedy.
Several other Marines were hurt in the accident that happened shortly before 10 p.m. PDT Monday at the Hawthorne Army Depot.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was not immediately clear whether the mortar exploded prematurely inside its firing tube or whether more than a single round exploded. The official was not authorized to speak to a reporter about the accident.
The 60mm 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 injured were taken to area hospitals for treatment and further evaluation.
Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, the area's major trauma hospital, took nine patients, including one who died, three who are in serious condition and five who are in fair condition, according to spokeswoman Stacy Kendall. All the patients are men under the age of 30, she said. Kendall described their injuries as penetrating trauma, fractures and vascular injuries.
The identities of those killed won't be released until 24 hours after their families are notified
"We send our prayers and condolences to the families of Marines involved in this tragic incident. We remain focused on ensuring that they are supported through this difficult time," said the force's commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox. "We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice."
The Hawthorne Army Depot stores and disposes of ammunition. The facility is made up of hundreds of buildings spread over more than 230 square miles.
Hawthorne has held an important place in American military history since World War II when it became the staging area for ammunition, bombs and rockets for the war. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection says that the depot employed more than 5,500 people at its peak. Nevada was chosen for the location because of its remoteness in the wake of a devastating explosion at the government's main depot in New Jersey in the 1920s.
It opened in September 1930 as the Naval Ammunition Depot Hawthorne and was redesignated Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant in 1977 when it moved under the control of the Army, according to its website. In 1994, the site ended its production mission and became Hawthorne Army Depot. The site currently serves several purposes for the military, including storing ammunition and explosives and providing what the military calls an ideal training facility for special forces preparing for deployments to similar desert terrain in places like Afghanistan.
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