First military evacuation flight leaves Japan
By T.D. FLACK, TRAVIS TRITTEN AND ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 19, 2011
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The first flight carrying U.S. military family members out of Japan left Yokota Air Base around 5 p.m. Saturday, beginning what could be a voluntary departure of hundreds or even thousands of Americans in coming days as concerns grow over a looming nuclear disaster.
About 233 of the 240 seats on the flight from Yokota to Seattle were filled, according to the Air Force, which said it was able to place all residents who wanted to leave Saturday on the flight.
Meanwhile, families at other military bases in Japan were preparing to flee the country as soon as other U.S.-sponsored flights could be scheduled.
“If they weren’t here, I’d stay,” said Geoff Modlin, pointing to his 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son.
Modlin, an Air Force spouse, said he and his two children would return to his hometown in Michigan with only a few days of luggage while his wife stayed in Japan. He said the family had decided the exit was “prudent” as the situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility about 130 miles to the north appeared increasingly grave.
The Defense Department announced the “voluntary departure” program Thursday, after fears rose of a radiation leak at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The plant’s power supply was knocked offline March 11 following the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that hit the region. Since then, there have been numerous explosions and workers have been trying desperately to keep the nuclear fuel rods cool.
Modlin and dozens of other voluntary evacuees gathered with hastily packed travel bags and pets in Yokota’s passenger terminal Saturday, waiting to fly out.
Friday night, officials contacted representatives from each unit at the air base, requesting names of people who wanted to leave immediately. Pregnant women and people with medical conditions were to be given top priority. But so far, Yokota officials say, they haven’t needed a priority list.
As of 3 p.m. Saturday, 556 people at Yokota have signed up for the flights, according to the base public affairs office. There are expected to be 11 flights from the base between now and March 27.
Base officials said voluntary evacuees will fly to the States on commercial aircraft contracted by the U.S. military.
At two others bases in Japan, voluntary evacuees were in a holding pattern.
As Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, base residents packed the base club, winding through a series of processing stations to register for flights.
Like Yokota, pregnant women and those with urgent medical issues were allowed to process first. They were followed by families with children 2-years-old and younger.
Misawa base officials couldn’t say by 2 p.m. Saturday how many family members they think will want to fly out of their base. They were also still coordinating flights, and were unable to predict when the first planes carrying families would depart.
Staff Sgt. Darnell Gordon sat in a waiting area, feeding a bottle to his 3-week-old daughter, while his other daughters, 5 and 4, sat nearby.
Gordon said that the fear of supply shortages, the nuclear issue in Fukushima, and a heavy work schedule all played a part in helping he and his wife decide the family should head back to the United States.
“We’re already working weekends,” he said.
Loriel Hernandez sat on another chair nearby, feeding her infant son a bottle. She said she was taking her son and 5-year-old daughter back to South Carolina, “just for safety reasons.”
“There’s no reason to stay,” she said. “I’m afraid of running out of formula and supplies.”
The Department of Defense Dependents Schools staff was especially busy helping families seeking school records. Parents with kids in elementary school will receive a letter they should provide if they try to place their children in a school in the United States. Junior high and high school students’ records were brought to the club and will be provided to parents.
The final step in the process was to receive a colored wristband with an assigned passenger number for tracking purposes.
Family members were told that they would be contacted when the flights were finally planned. The information will be broadcast on AFN radio and television, over the base loudspeaker system and on various base social media networking sites.
At Naval Air Facility Atsugi, near Tokyo, officials began mustering families with pregnant women, infants and special needs at the base movie theater around 9:30 a.m., only to cancel the muster shortly afterward. Dozens of families had shown up at the theater with their luggage and pets. Officials issued a statement apologizing for the inconvenience, stating that things are very fluid right now.
Base officials were meeting Saturday afternoon to discuss departure times for the first flights.
Earlier Saturday, Navy officials announced that those departing Japan will not be charged for the flight.
The Defense Department will pay for voluntary evacuation flights to any of the 48 continental United States, Commander Fleet Activity Yokosuka’s Capt. David Owen said during a broadcast message on the base commander’s channel at 1:42 p.m. At this time, Hawaii and Alaska are excluded, he said.
Families of servicemembers and Defense Department civilians who are leaving will need TDY orders from their command, Owen said. The orders will be created per family, not by individual.
Contractors can also use transportation, but will likely need to sign a document saying they will repay the cost of the flight.
“You’re probably going to have to pay for it somewhere down the road,” Owen said.