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Deadly mortar accident due to human error, investigation finds

May. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
1/9 memorial ceremony
During a March 21 memorial service at Twentynine Palms, Calif., Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, pay their respects to seven members of the battalion who were killed March 18 during a Mountain Warfare Training exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev. (Gunnery Sgt. Leo A Salinas / Marine Corps)
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Lt. Col. Andrew J. McNulty, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was removed from command May 8. A command investigation of the incident blames human error, saying Marines did not follow correct procedures and that the mortar section had not conducted appropriate preparatory training leading up to the night, company-level, live-fire event. (1st Lt. Sin Y. Kook / Marine Corps)

A mortar explosion that claimed the lives of seven Marines during live-fire training in March was caused by human error, the Marine Corps announced on Wednesday.

In a news release, Marine officials said a command investigation into the explosion had been completed. Seven Marines from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., were killed and eight other troops from the unit were injured when a 60mm mortar round exploded during a nighttime exercise March 18 at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev.

“The Marines employing one of the mortars did not follow correct procedures, resulting in the detonation of a high-explosive round at the mortar position,” officials said in the release. The announcement said the mortar round “exploded in the immediate vicinity of the mortar section’s firing position.”

A spokesman for Camp Lejeune’s 2nd Marine Division, 1st Lt. Peter Koerner, said he could not clarify whether the round had exploded inside the mortar tube or outside of it, or whether a double-loaded round was to blame for the tragedy. He said the results announced in the news release were preliminary and he could not provide any more information.

Earlier this month, 2nd Marine Division commanding general Brig. Gen. James Lukeman relieved three senior officers attached to the unit in connection with the incident. Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, commander of 1/9, was removed from his position, as was Alpha Company commander Capt. Kelby Breivogel and battalion infantry weapons officer Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring.

“Lukeman relieved those officers because he lost trust and confidence in their ability to ensure proper preparation for, and conduct of, live fire training events,” officials said in the release.

Lt. Col. Corey Collier took command of the battalion on May 23.

The investigation also determined there was no equipment problem with the 60mm mortar system the Marines used at Hawthorne.

Capt. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps, said a suspension of the M224A1 60mm mortar system for all Marine Corps commands, pending the results of the Hawthorne investigation, has been lifted.

“During the investigation process, it was determined the system and ammunition are both safe for use in training and combat,” Flanagan said via email.

The troops killed in the accident were Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19, of Clearfield, Pa; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Fla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23, of Fairfield, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21, of Marietta, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21, of Hickory, N.C.; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21, of Anne Arundel, Md.; and Cpl. Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, of Madison, Ill.

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