US town mourns Marines killed in explosion
Hundreds of residents in a rural US community steeped in military history have turned out to mourn the loss of 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, North Carolina, who arrived at the Hawthorne Army Depot, 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 restrict the use of the weapons until an investigation can determine their safety, officials said.
"Although this is a very difficult time for the entire depot and our small town, we will continue to work closely with the Marine Corps during this tragic incident," said Lieutenant Colonel Craig Short, commander of the Hawthorne Army Depot.
The explosion at the sprawling facility involved the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune. Seven men were killed and eight were injured, officials said. A Navy corpsman was among those hurt.
Earlier reports said an eighth marine had died, but the official toll has stayed at seven.
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 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.
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.
Storefronts carry names like Patriot's Plaza. The sign on one business now carried the message, "Please Pray For Our Marines."
"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.
"You have given meaning to the phrase, 'America's Patriotic Home.'"
Meanwhile, training, drill and routine continued Wednesday at Camp Lejeune.
A patrol of about a dozen Marines marched at the direction of a drill master. Service men and women filtered into a recreation centre to pass time between tasks.
Barracks for single officers were desolate as Marines reported to their assignments.
The 50,000 uniformed troops based along North Carolina's southeastern coast rallied around their fallen as notices went out to family and brothers in arms.
The identities of those killed have not been officially released. However, family members have confirmed the names of four victims.
Aaron Ripperda, 26, played football in high school and was hard-working and respectful, according to his high school's assistant principal.
Ripperda's aunt, Beverly Lesicko, tells the St Louis Post-Dispatch that her nephew was scheduled to come home in May and had aspired to become a professional chef.
He joined the Marines for a chance to explore the world, she said.
Karen Perry said her son, Josh Martino, 19, was an accomplished hunter and former high school athlete who had dreamed of being in the Marines since boyhood and was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan.
He hoped to marry his fiancee later this year, she said.
The grandfather of a 23-year-old Connecticut native confirmed his grandson had been killed.
Roger Muchnick grew up in Westport, and had served in Afghanistan, according to Jerome Muchnick.
The young man was considering returning to college after serving in the Marines. The elder Muchnick said his grandson was a vibrant, loving man, and he's devastated by his death.
Also among the victims was 21-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Josh Taylor.
His grandfather, Larry Stephens, said his grandson had talked about being a Marine since he was about 5, after watching the History Channel.
He served tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait, and was engaged to be married in May.
The impact of the accident was immediately felt.
According to US military and Marine officials, use of 60 mm mortars has been suspended by the Marine Corps, but there was an exemption for troops in Afghanistan.
Marine units on the warfront may continue to use the 60 mm mortars with the review and approval of their commanders.
The suspension largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
Officials said the suspension will be effective until the investigation into the accident has been completed. After that, they said it is likely the suspension would be lifted.
The US Army has halted the use of the two lots of ammunition that were involved in the accident. Army officials have issued no similar broader ban.
The 60 mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate, but it's common during training for others to observe nearby.