Charges against four Marines in connection with 2004 Okinawa helicopter crash are dropped
NAHA, Okinawa — The Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office dropped charges Friday against four Marine mechanics in connection with the Aug. 13, 2004, helicopter crash on the campus of Okinawa International University.
Okinawa prefectural police earlier this month forwarded their investigation report, recommending criminal charges against the four unnamed Marine mechanics — two sergeants and two corporals — for failing to follow safety procedures for maintaining a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter.
The prosecution dismissed the case, bringing a formal close to the criminal investigation, after they concluded that it was not Japan but the U.S. government that has jurisdiction over the four Marines, said Hirokazu Urata, deputy chief prosecutor at Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office.
“While the cause of the accident is improper maintenance of the aircraft, from any angle you see it is obvious that it was an act in the line of duty,” he said, referring to a provision of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement that stipulates that the U.S. military has jurisdiction over its members for offenses that occur during official duty.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the four Marine mechanics were court-martialed for dereliction of duty. Two of them were sentenced to forfeiture of half a month’s pay for two months and given a letter of reprimand, and the other two were demoted one rank, a ministry spokesman said earlier this month.
Marine Corps officials said earlier this month they would not discuss disciplinary action taken by the military against the maintenance crew.
An investigation report by the U.S. military attributed the crash to the mechanics failing to install a cotter pin in the tail rotor during routine maintenance of the aircraft, affecting control of the helicopter.
The helicopter clipped the wall of the university’s administration building and burst into flames, sending debris throughout the neighborhood. Three crewmembers were injured but no civilians on the ground were hurt.
U.S. agrees to alter flight patterns at Futenma
U.S. and Japanese governments on Friday agreed to change military helicopter flight patterns at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Safety measures were implemented based on the results of a two-year safety study initiated by both governments after a Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter crashed on an Okinawan university campus in August 2004.
The study, released by the Defense Facilities Administration Agency, reports that new measures will include using the shortest route to the ocean as the main flight route and minimizing helicopter flight over densely populated areas.
Advanced technology will also play a new role in safety, according to the report. An air control data processing system and introduction of flight simulation will be implemented, while Futenma’s airfield will be upgraded with Runway End Identifier Lights.
Also, to secure a larger clear zone, an unused microwave antenna and building will be removed and tall trees will be trimmed, the report said.
While the study confirmed some acceptable safety levels during Futenma’s present helicopter flight operations, it recommends both governments implement measures to further ensure safety for flight crews and Okinawa residents.
Removing danger posed by the air station’s flight operations within three years was a 2006 campaign promise of Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps said it will remain committed to safe flight operations at the air station.
“[The] U.S. Marine Corps will continue to operate its aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, as it always has, in a safe and responsible manner that meets our operational needs and acknowledges our role as a member of the local community,” said 1st Lt. Garron Garn, a spokesman for Marine Corps Bases Japan.
— Chiyomi Sumida; Stars and Stripes reporter Cindy Fisher contributed to the story.