RENO, Nev. — A 60mm mortar explosion killed seven Marines and injured a half-dozen more during a training exercise in the Nevada desert, prompting the Pentagon to immediately halt the use of the weapon worldwide until an investigation can determine its safety, a military official said Tuesday.
The explosion occurred Monday night at the Hawthorne Army Depot, a facility used by troops headed overseas, during an exercise involving the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Several Marines from the unit were injured in the blast, authorities said.
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.
Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, the area's major trauma hospital, took eight patients, including one who died, five who are in serious condition, one in fair condition, and one who has been discharged, according to spokesman Mark Earnest.
All the patients are men under the age of 30, he said. Hospital officials described their injuries as penetrating trauma, fractures and vascular injuries.
The rescue was complicated by the remoteness of the site. A helicopter ride to Reno is 41 minutes long, according to Care Flight spokesman Kurt Althof, and the distance is 2 ½ hours by car. Small hospitals in rural Nevada aren't prepared to accommodate mass casualties.
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," 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."