Helo crashes on Okinawa campus
GINOWAN, Okinawa — A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed Friday at Okinawa International University, injuring all three crew members.
The school’s students are on summer break and no civilian injuries were reported. The accident occurred about 2:20 p.m. near Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, where the aircraft was based.
According to an Okinawa police spokesman in Ginowan, witnesses said they heard three or four explosions when the helicopter went down at the base of the school’s administration building, about 10 feet from a busy road. The helicopter burst into flames after hitting the ground, and the side of the building was blackened and had several slash marks from a rotor blade, police said.
One 10-foot length of a rotor fell some 100 feet from the crash site into the driveway of a home in a residential area, crushing a moped and shearing a rooftop television antenna. Several other buildings were damaged by falling debris.
Marine officials say the cause of the accident is under investigation. The names of the crew and details of the injuries to the helicopter crew were being withheld pending notification of their relatives.
Okinawa police say about 25 people were in the building at the time.
Yasutake Kuroshima, director of the university’s administration office, was in front of the building when the helicopter went down. He said he’s used to helicopter noise over the area and knew right away the helicopter flying over him was in trouble.
Blade snaps, craft crashes
“It did not sound right,” he said. “I looked up and saw a rotor blade snap off the helicopter and fall. At the same time the helicopter started to spin, making a zig-zag flight, and began to fall to the ground. ... I realized it was coming toward me, so I shouted to people nearby to run away and I ran too,” Kuroshima said. “In the meantime, with the shock of the helicopter hitting the building, about 25 or so people from inside dashed out and ran away as far as they could.”
He said he heard a small explosion when the aircraft hit the ground, and then thick black smoke enveloped the area. “Then I heard three louder explosions,” he said.
The school is about 330 yards from the Marine air station’s southern fence line. Kuroshima said about 200 students were on the campus even though classes were closed for summer break.
“Another faculty member and I directed our attention to keeping the students from going near the site,” he said.
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, the Okinawa Area Coordinator, met with the two prefectural government vice governors Friday night to express his “heartfelt regret for today’s unfortunate accident.” During a brief press conference, he said the helicopter was conducting routine training and experienced “some type of mechanical failure.”
“But we do not have information yet on the nature of that failure,” he said.
“We are thankful that there were no injuries to any citizens of Ginowan city and that our three injured crew members are all in stable condition,” Blackman said, reading from a prepared text.
“The Marine Corps takes incidents such as this very seriously. We are cooperating fully with local government officials and will continue to do so throughout the course of an extensive investigation.
“I deeply regret the anxiety this has caused the citizens of Ginowan city,” Blackman added. “I would like to personally thank the Okinawan prefectural police and local fire departments for their assistance today.”
The general did not take questions from the media.
‘Yankee go home!’
Vice Governor Hirotaka Makino called for the grounding of all Marine helicopters until the cause of the accident is determined.
“Every time a U.S. military aircraft accident occurs, we have strongly demanded a thorough investigation and preventative measures be taken so they are not repeated,” he said. “This serious accident — a helicopter crashing into residential area — is a great shock to the people of Okinawa who are forced to live with military bases.
“We will file a strong protest,” he said.
Within two hours of the accident a small group of anti-base protesters gathered near the crash scene, urging the small crowd watching Japanese and U.S. military firefighters douse the smoldering ruins of the helicopter with chants of “Yankee go home! Marines go home!”
Kiyoko Tokashiki, an Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member from Ginowan, raised her fists in the air with the other demonstrators. She had been at the nearby city office getting a briefing from the mayor of Ginowan concerning his recent trip to the United States to lobby for the closure of the air station within five years.
“We heard the explosions and I rushed there,” she said. “On the way, the first thing that came to my mind was it was a terrorist attack. … Then at the site I learned that it was an accident — the kind of thing that we have feared for so many years,” she said. “We especially feared accidents by this type of helicopter, an older model used during the Vietnam War.”
Base targeted for closure
Located in the middle of a bustling urban area, Futenma has been a focal point for anti-military sentiment for years. Opponents, including Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, have demanded the base be closed. They have argued that the busy base was an accident waiting to happen.
Friday night Iha called for the suspension of all flights over residential areas.
“In the past, every time an accident involving helicopters based at Futenma air station occurred, we filed a protest and the incidents have been repeated again and again,” he said in a written statement. “This could have been a major disaster.
“As the Mayor of Ginowan, whose duty is to protect the lives and property of our citizens, such an accident is never acceptable,” he said. “The promised deadline for the closure of the air station that both governments agreed to has long passed,” he said. “I once again demand early closure of the air station as well as a thorough investigation of the accident.”
In 1996 a bilateral committee formed to consolidate U.S. base property on Okinawa called for closing of Futenma within seven years, once an alternate site for Marine air operations could be located on Okinawa.
But plans for a replacement facility in the waters off rural northeast Okinawa have run into snags. The project has been stalled by a sit-in carried out by a group of protesters who have prevented the Japanese government from conducting an environmental survey of the area.
The last serious crash of a Marine helicopter on Okinawa occurred on April 19, 1999, when a CH-53E Super Stallion crashed in the Pacific Ocean less than a mile off the northeast coast of the island during routine night flight training. All four crew members died.
The helicopter that crashed Friday, a CH-53D Sea Stallion, is primarily used to transport equipment and supplies during ship-to-shore operations.
The Sea Stallions were first introduced in 1966 and now fill the role of medium lift helicopters.
— Chiyomi Sumida and Fred Zimmerman contributed to this report.