Reporting Nick Janes
HAWTHORNE (CBS13) – At least seven Marines are dead and eight others are injured after a mortar shell exploded during a military exercise in Nevada.
A somber memorial was held to remember the lives lost in the explosion Tuesday. Flags were flying at half staff as family, friends, and coworkers gathered to pray and bring comfort to each other outside the Hawthorne Army Depot.
A 60 millimeter mortar exploded before it could be fired during a live-fire training exercise Monday night. The Marines and sailors were based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, but had been training in the area for a month.
The Hawthorne army facility is about 140 miles southeast of Reno. The massive facility stores ammunition and is home to hundreds of buildings spread across 230 square miles.
Moments after the explosion, the army depot put out an urgent call for five helicopters. The most critically wounded were immobilized and loaded up first. Emergency responders rushed the injured Marines and sailors to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.
Doctors say they were injured with shrapnel and had blunt force trauma, similar to patients treated after the Reno air races disaster.
The injured Marines arrived two at a time, every 45 minutes to an hour, and doctors say they had severe injuries.
“Both patients who arrived were critically ill. As I said, one on arrival did not have injuries that were survivable,” said Dr. Michael Morkin.
In all, eight Marines were rushed to Renown, one died and one was discharged. As of Tuesday evening, a hospital spokesman said six more were still being treated; three were listed in serious condition, while the other three were in fair condition.
Doctors say injuries range from broken bones to blunt force trauma and vascular injuries stemming from the blast.
“A couple of the patients knew that something bad had happened, knew something had malfunctioned, weren’t sure what happened as far as I could tell,” said Morkin.
The Marines have issued an indefinite moratorium on firing mortars worldwide until an investigation determines they’re safe.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation. The names of the dead and injured will be released once their families are notified.
Military and police forces know the risks inherent in dealing with explosives, whether it’s training or real life.
Accidents like the one in Hawthorne are rare, but the Sacramento area had a couple of close calls in the past.
“The main charge of the high explosives in those mortar rounds is very stable,” said Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Givens.
Givens is on the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Bomb Squad.
“You have a very dangerous weapon,” he said. “Accidents do happen.”
Givens recalls a major military ordinance accident that happened in 1973 at the Roseville Railyards. A train was traveling through the area with thousands of aircraft bombs when something triggered an explosion. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
In 1997, a construction crew ran across another bomb at the same railyards. Homes were evacuated and the remaining bomb was destroyed.
“Every now and then, we will come across some military ordinance.”
Givens says they run into smaller, but still deadly, military explosives during routine neighborhood searches.
“Whether it’s a novelty item brought back from one of the wars of the purchase or something purchased online, or something that was cleaned out that was one time a live explosive,” he said.
If anyone ever comes across such an item, it is best to call authorities, Givens says.
CBS13 will be working on this developing story overnight. For the latest, watch CBS13 Morning News or check back with CBSSacramento.com.