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NAHA, Okinawa — The island’s top U.S. general and governor were at odds Saturday over resumption of most air operations at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station.

During a meeting at the Okinawa Prefectural Government office building, in a small meeting room packed with Japanese media, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert L. Blackman apologized for the Aug. 13 crash of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter on the grounds of Okinawa International University in Ginowan, adjacent to the air station’s southern fence line.

“Governor, I returned from an exercise in Korea today to speak with you directly and to express my deepest regret for the helicopter accident that occurred a week ago from yesterday,” Blackman said. “I fully understand the anxiety that the accident has brought in particular [to] the citizens of Ginowan City.”

Gov. Keiichi Inamine frowned as he listened. Then he reiterated his demand that all flight operations at Futenma be halted until an investigation into the crash is complete and made public.

The meeting was courteous, but cool. The two men did not shake hands at the beginning and bowed slightly to each other when it was over 30 minutes later.

The Sea Stallion experienced mechanical difficulties shortly after taking off from Futenma, according to witnesses. Okinawa police said the Marines informed them that there was a failure in the tail rotor assembly.

Around 2:20 p.m., parts of the tail rotor detached. A large piece of the blade later was found in a driveway on top of a moped some 100 feet from the main crash site. Witnesses say they watched the helicopter lose altitude and clip the university’s administration building before crashing to the ground and exploding into flames.

The three crewmen, Marines from Hawaii on Okinawa for training under the Unit Deployment Program, survived the crash. No civilian injuries were reported. The university was on summer break.

Since the accident, many Okinawa officials have demanded flight operations at the base be halted. Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, who wants the base closed permanently within five years, said the accident proved his point that the air station, located in the middle of his city, was an “accident waiting to happen.”

“The accident is now being thoroughly and completely investigated,” Blackman told Inamine on Saturday. “A number of subject matter experts from the Navy Safety Center and Naval Air Assistant Command are here on Okinawa as a part of investigation team. I will meet with them later this afternoon to access the progress of the investigation and to determine if they have made any initial conclusion at this time.”

He said the CH-53Ds remained grounded.

“As you know, sir, we initiated minimal, operational essential helicopter flying with the exception of CH-53Ds earlier this week, specifically in preparation for deployment for 31st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) to the Arabian Gulf,” Blackman told Inamine. “I assure you personally each and every one of those helicopters were thoroughly inspected for safety and that all procedures are thoroughly reviewed prior to the operations.

“And, again, I express to you personally and to the citizens of Okinawa my deepest regret [for] this accident,” Blackman said. “It is certainly something we did not want to happen and certainly never want to happen again.

Inamine, who had cut short his trip to visit Okinawans now living in Bolivia, said he visited the crash site Saturday morning and was shocked at what he saw.

“The accident was much more serious than I had initially imagined,” he said. “Debris was scattered in a large area. Damage to the building was more serious than it appears because there were damaged computers and other equipment in the office.”

He said what upset Okinawans as much as the accident was the way the Marines took over security of the area, refusing entrance at first even to Okinawa police.

“What the president and faculty at the university was most concerned with is that their entry to the site was restricted after the accident,” Inamine said. “They are upset because autonomy in the university was violated.

He said he will ask the national government to review the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement “so that an investigation by the Okinawa prefectural police in civilian areas becomes possible in cases such as this accident.”

“I will strongly demand a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident and to make public the findings,” he said. “The wreckage was removed from the site, making an investigation by the police impossible. Residents are greatly concerned about the situation.”

He said Okinawans also were angry that flights had resumed.

“Despite our strong demand to suspend all flight operations, helicopters are flying,” he said. “The people of Okinawa are irate about this. Until effective safety steps are taken, all the aircraft at the air station, including helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, must be halted.

“Resumption of flight operations is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

“Governor, I assure you that the accident, as I said earlier, will be thoroughly investigated,” Blackman responded. “We will find the cause of the accident in order to ensure this type of thing may never happen again.

“I would like to add that the cooperation at the crash site itself with local authorities was excellent,” he added. “At every step of the way we were able to cooperate and to ensure the integrity of the crash site, so we could, in fact, conduct the most thorough and the most complete investigation that we could.”

He promised that an “environmental remediation” of the crash site would take place soon, including a cleanup of any hazardous materials.


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