Helicopter crash provides spark for opponents of Futenma base, flights
By DAVID ALLEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 19, 2004
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Town and city councils throughout Okinawa are meeting in emergency sessions this week to pass formal protest resolutions about Friday’s crash of a Marine helicopter in Ginowan.
Most call for all Marine Corps Air Station Futenma flights to cease and the base be closed, even before a planned new replacement airport is ready. They also demand all military flights over their residential areas be stopped.
The actions were sparked by an accident involving a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion medium lift helicopter that clipped an Okinawa International University administration building just 330 yards from MCAS Futenma’s southern fence line.
Helicopter debris was found in a heavily developed residential area up to 370 yards from the crash site. Okinawa police have said they were told a tail rotor failure probably made it impossible for the pilot to control the aircraft. Police said witnesses reported seeing the tail rotor and its vertical support fin detach and fall to the ground 370 yards south of the main crash site. They reported hearing several explosions and seeing a fire when the helicopter crashed at the base of the building.
The three crew members survived the crash, Marine officials said.
“Due to the sensitive nature of the incident, we are not able to release the names, ranks and ages of the crew members,” Marine Staff Sgt. Suki Forbes told Stripes. “Two Marines were treated for back injuries and a Marine was treated for a hand injury. All three are in stable condition.”
Okinawa police said although houses and cars were damaged, no civilians were injured.
Major portions of the wreckage, including the tail assembly, were removed from the site Monday amid controversy that U.S. officials wouldn’t let Okinawa police examine the helicopter’s remains or let any Okinawa officials come close to the site.
Okinawa police have said they asked Friday to take part in the probe. However, the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement gives the U.S. military primary jurisdiction over accidents involving U.S. military personnel on official duty. The request was rejected.
Koshin Iraha, Okinawa Prefectural Police Criminal Investigation Division chief, said his department would conduct its own investigation.
Although Okinawa police help with the investigation was rejected, Forbes said, “The Marine Corps is prepared to allow Okinawa Prefectural authorities access to the accident site and surrounding areas for the exclusive purpose of observing any property damage as a result of the accident.”
She said the remainder of the wreckage was scheduled to be cleared from the site by Wednesday but the sudden approach of a tropical storm had delayed it until Thursday.
On Monday, the Urasoe City Council, meeting in emergency session, filed a protest with U.S. and Japanese officials. On Tuesday, representatives of Ginowan, Okinawa City, Nago, Gushikawa, Kadena and Chatan held similar sessions.
Later this week, Naha, Yomitan, Kitanakagusuku, Yonashiro, Nishihara, Nakagusuku, Ishikawa and Katsuren municipal councils were to meet in emergency sessions.
“It could have been a major disaster victimizing a large number of citizens,” stated Ginowan City Council’s resolution, which was passed Tuesday.
“Members of the council are infuriated by the accident. There have been at least 70 aircraft accidents involving the U.S. military since 1972, when Okinawa was returned to Japanese jurisdiction.
“Each time there was an accident, we protested,” stated the resolution, echoed in tone and substance by other municipal councils. “However, each time, both the U.S. and Japanese governments merely expressed their regret and promised to take preventive measures. Yet the accidents continue to happen.”
The resolution pointed out that MCAS Futenma is in the middle of a heavily developed urban area, making such accidents “doomed to happen.”
It noted, “Although no citizens were injured, debris of the aircraft scattered in wide areas, damaging homes in the neighborhood.
“A glass window of a bedroom for an infant was broken and a part of the aircraft pierced the metal door of a home,” the resolution stated. “This shows that the military air station threatens [the] safety of residents even when they are inside their homes,” it contended.
The city council demanded a halt to all flights and an early closure of MCAS Futenma, a thorough review of the status of forces agreement between the United States and Japan and reconsidering the plan to build a new air station in the waters off Okinawa’s northeast shore.
Okinawa City, next to Kadena Air Base, passed a similar resolution Tuesday, stating, “The crash was a vivid reminder for residents of communities surrounding Kadena Air Base, the largest military base, how dangerous [it is] to live near a military base.”