One group of unexploded munitions the Marines were consolidating so those would be detonated in a controlled blast, which would have been triggered in the demolition pit the Marines were digging just to the left side on this photo. (Courtesy photo)
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CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF. — A senior commander relieved two explosive ordnance disposal section leaders for cause March 4 after an investigation found that a poorly prepared unit clearing a range of unexploded ordnance apparently mishandled a live round, triggering an explosion that killed four Marines last year.
On Nov. 13, a group of 53 Marines and sailors were in their second day of a planned four-day proficiency training operation and were to sweep unexploded ordnance from Ranges 407 and 408. By Marine Corps estimates, roughly 2 percent to 5 percent of fired ordnance remain unexploded. That would leave 50,000 to 100,000 potentially lethal UXO rounds on the ground, said Brig. Gen. John W. Bullard, who commands Marine Corps Installations-West and is the Camp Pendleton base commander.
He found that “while it is not a prohibitive practice, the hand-to-hand transfer of M430/A1 40mm UXO is a high-risk practice which should be avoided,” according to the investigation. But “the exact cause triggering the explosive train in the demolition pit ... is indeterminate due to the only individuals who had direct observation are deceased.”
Bullard concluded that the “human error” that caused the deadly mishap might have been prevented if the unit used more safety-minded practices when handling unexploded rounds.
“It should be a wake-up call,” Bullard said March 6 in discussing the mishap investigation.
The explosion killed Gunnery Sgt. Gregory J. Mullins, 31, of Bayou L’Ourse, La., Staff Sgt. Matthew R. Marsh, 28, of Long Beach, Calif., Staff Sgt. Eric W. Summers, 32, of Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Sgt. Miguel Ortiz, 27, of Vista, Calif. Two other Marines and a Navy corpsman were treated for injuries suffered in the blast, officials said.
The two senior seasoned EOD leaders, whose names officials did not release due to privacy law, were fired “for loss of trust and confidence in their ability to ensure proper preparation for and conduct of EOD proficiency training and lack of adherence to the established norms,” base officials said in a statement.
Bullard ordered the command investigation into the mishap, a copy of which was provided to Marine Corps Times under a Freedom of Information Act request. Two other investigations, by Marine Corps safety officials and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, have been completed and are “relatively similar” in their findings of what happened, he said.
The explosion happened in the Zulu impact area, which covers 7,385 acres in the central part of the base. About 2.24 million 40mm high explosive/dual purpose rounds had been fired into the area since the last sweep, done in 2007, base officials said. (Range clearance, which is done by contractors, isn’t a mission for EOD but “has been used extensively” to help meet annual proficiency training, the investigation found.)
Bullard expressed strong concern about EOD Marines’ handling of UXO, specifically hand-to-hand transfer, during range clearance operations.
The EOD section encountered about 1,000 rounds on the first day of training and came across another 3,000 rounds on the second day, he said. The sheer number of unexploded ordnance they saw on the ground, he added, should have prompted stricter measures to ensure safety as EOD consolidated the rounds in groups and set up demolition pits for subsequent controlled blasts.
“There was not due diligence in the process ... for what they needed to do,” said Bullard, referring to how leaders managed the operational risk in that clearing operation. “There was a disregard for community norms,” he added, referring to the practice of Marines’ bare-handing and moving unexploded rounds.
However, in endorsing the investigation, he disagreed with the investigator’s opinion that the EOD leaders had properly supervised the section during the training, citing “more sensible actions” the investigation found could have been taken in planning and conducting the training.
Bullard said he has directed immediate reviews into policies and procedures for EOD training on MCI-West ranges, including stricter operational risk management training and tighter coordination, range surveys and safety training. He also ordered a halt to some of the training by the base EOD section while the investigation and reviews are underway.
The EOD community is expected to weigh the investigations’ findings and recommendations during a scheduled EOD operational advisory group meeting in May at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
In recent days, Bullard had met and briefed the investigation to some of the families of the deceased Marines, who were veterans of combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. The families “all talked about that they loved to do what they do,” he said. The EOD Marines “have been absolutely heroes out there, for what they do, saving other Marines’ lives.”