HAWTHORNE, Nev. (AP) — Hundreds of residents in a rural community steeped in military history turned out to mourn the loss of at least seven Marines as investigators arrived at an ammunition depot to try to determine how a mortar shell exploded at the Nevada base and sent shrapnel flying into troops during a training exercise.
Families with children clutching small American flags were among the nearly 300 people who attended the brief memorial service, where a trumpeter played taps at a city park as a giant American flag flew at half-staff across the street from the base at dusk.
Marine officers from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who arrived at the Hawthorne Army Depot on Tuesday could not attend the memorial, as they began the task of figuring out what caused a mortar shell to explode in its firing tube. The accident prompted the Pentagon to immediately halt the use of the weapons until an investigation can determine their safety, officials said.
“All of the officers are tied up with the investigation,” said John Stroud, a Veterans of Foreign Wars official from Fallon who led the memorial service. “For obvious reasons, they’ve got important work to do.”
The explosion Monday night at the sprawling facility during an exercise involved the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune. At least seven men were killed and eight were injured, officials said.
Hawthorne has been an important installation in American military history since World War II, when it was the staging area for ammunition, bombs and rockets. The facility has downsized in recent years but still serves as a munitions repository and disposal site, along with being a training facility for troops as they take advantage of terrain and climate similar to places like Afghanistan. The facility is made up of hundreds of buildings spread over more than 230 square miles, and bunkers dot the sagebrush-covered hills visible from the highway.
Even though the Marines were from the other side of the country, locals still feel a strong sense of pride in the military because the town’s history is so deeply tied to the armed forces.
The town calls itself “America’s Patriotic Home” and is home to the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, which displays hundreds of shells, munitions, battery guns and weapons dating to World War II. Red, white and blue sculptures made of former shells and bombs are on display in town. Storefronts carry names like Patriot’s Plaza. The sign on a business Thursday carried the message, “Please Pray For Our Marines.”
At the memorial Tuesday night, members of the women’s Auxiliary of VFW 231 laid a wreath and floral arrangements beneath an American flag as dozens of Mineral County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters who attended to the wounded the night before looked on.
“The evening of March 18, 2013, will forever be remembered as a moment of profound tragedy in Mineral County,” District Attorney Sean Rowe told the memorial service.