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Riptide suspected in airman’s Okinawa drowning

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — A rip current was the probable cause of the drowning of an airman who was snorkeling in Okinawa waters Saturday, the Japan Coast Guard said Tuesday.

The body of Air Force 2nd Lt. Stephen Smith, 28, a maintenance officer with Kadena’s 353rd Maintenance Squadron was recovered by an Air Force search team about 8 a.m. Sunday, said Koichi Nakahara, a spokesman for the Japan Coast Guard in Nakagusuku.

Smith was reported missing Saturday afternoon while snorkeling with friends off Hedo Point.

“Our group is heavyhearted over the tragic loss of our fellow Air Commando, Lt. ‘Smitty’ Smith of our maintenance squadron,” 353rd Special Operations Group commander Col. Robert Toth said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. “Although heavyhearted, we are comforted knowing his final days were filled with excitement over a recent visit with his son Andru, pride in his career, and a spirit that uplifted all who knew him.”

A memorial for Smith is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at Kadena’s Chapel Three, according to Kadena spokesman Maj. John Hutcheson.

“He was snorkeling with three friends when a rip current occurred,” Nakahara said. “The sea was calm until then, and when they realized a strong current was pushing out to sea from the shore, they started to head back to the beach. That’s when the woman who was closest to him lost sight of him after a big wave hit her.”

A search of the waters was conducted overnight by the Japan Coast Guard and an Air Force team consisting of members of the 33rd Rescue Squadron, 31st Rescue Squadron, 17th Special Operations Squadron and the 320th Special Tactics Squadron.

Smith’s body was found about 400 meters from shore, Nakahara said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.


Swimmers cautioned to know the conditions and be prepared

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — The Japan Coast Guard is advising swimmers to exercise caution in the waters off Okinawa, which have claimed the lives of 62 people over the past two years.

Hedo Point, where Air Force 2nd Lt. Stephen Smith drowned last weekend, is one of 14 areas off Okinawa’s coast where rip currents can occur, said Koji Muneda of the Coast Guard’s Oceanographic Research Team in Naha. Rip currents, also called reef currents because they usually form near gaps in the reefs that surround the island, can occur suddenly and drag swimmers away from the beach, Muneda said.

“It’s especially dangerous on a windy day or during a great tidal range or when the tide is going out,” Muneda said. “The ocean offers you lots of fun, but at the same time, it can also be a very dangerous place.”

He stressed that it was important for swimmers to know the weather and tide forecasts before making a decision to go swimming.

Drowning usually comes after a victim becomes too exhausted fighting the current to reach the shore. The secret to surviving a rip current is to swim out of it and not against it, according to the Japan Coast Guard’s Web site.

Rip currents are usually narrow, and by swimming parallel to the shore, a swimmer can be free of the current in short order.

Of the 62 deaths in the past two years, 17 were snorkeling cases and four were people connected to the U.S. military as servicemembers or under the U.S.-Japan Status of Force Agreement, according to the Okinawa Marine Leisure Safety Bureau Foundation.

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