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IWAKUNI MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, Japan — Safety officials get a little nervous this time of year.

Summer means base residents will visit beaches and rivers. And after a string of water-related deaths several years ago, base officials have reason to worry.

From 1995 to 2000, six Americans stationed at Iwakuni died in rivers and the ocean. Some died jumping into swollen rivers after rains, one at a beach where sandbars obscured deep pockets of water and one canoeing in the sea.

In 1999, after the fifth drowning, station officials cracked down and implemented a yearly safety briefing, safe boating classes, limited hours for watercraft and gear issue during inclement weather and began requiring a float plan, or a water itinerary when checking out watercraft.

Before summer and after heavy rains, safety officials now visit popular recreation areas to look for dangers.

The crackdown had impact. One person drowned the year after the crackdown began, but the waters have been incident-free for nearly four years.

Each death is reviewed in the mandatory annual briefing, which focuses heavily on riverside activities, like jumping into rivers.

“People don’t understand the dangers of rivers, unless they’ve grown up around them,” said Richard Perry, station safety director. “If you go after a rain, it can have a very fast-moving current. Rivers are known to swell quite quickly.”

Under the calm water surface a storm of activity could be going on, a mixture of strong currents, boulders and debris washed down from upriver construction sites.

Fences, ropes and wires end up in the river, particularly after a heavy rain, he said. They can tangle a swimmer’s feet and cause panic.

Of the six deaths since 1994, four occurred in rivers. In one case, two Marines died jumping off a bridge over a rain-swollen body of water.

Last week a Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, sailor died at Nagasaki Falls after slipping off rocks he was climbing above a river, Sasebo officials said.

Perry adds that jumping into rocky waters, from cliffs or bridges, can cause broken bones or even ruptured eardrums. Rocks and boulders, some as large as a house, can trap swimmers or pummel them in the water.

“It could literally beat you to death,” Perry said.

Safety officials also warn swimmers about ocean safety. One servicemember died after capsizing in a canoe in the ocean after waves washed over it.

People should pick the right watercraft for their activity. Before they can check out any vessel from gear issue, boaters must take a safety class and get a license, according to Patrick Brown, station safety program administrator.

Gear issue will not issue watercraft during heavy rains — even if the rains occurred upstream. Boaters also must always wear a flotation device, no matter how old they are.

At beaches, people should be careful not to swim in areas not designated for swimming and look out for deep drops near sandbars. Wind and waves hitting the beach can cause juts of sand that can give the appearance of shallow waters.

In Japan, in the early and late part of summer, beaches may also be accessible to swimmers but technically closed, so there won’t be anyone there to provide immediate aid, Brown said.

Before going anywhere, people planning to swim should research where they’re going and make a plan. People can check with the base tours or safety offices, or check booths at the site. Even if information is provided in Japanese, maps often depict the dangerous areas.

And, Brown adds, watch and follow what locals do. They may know of a danger spot and can at least heed warnings printed in Japanese that foreigners might miss.

Safety officials suggest ways to stay out of danger, but they’re careful not to suggest avoiding swimming.

“We highly encourage everyone to go out and enjoy Japan,” Brown said. “Just do it safely.”

Water safety suggestions

• Don’t swim in rivers or beaches after a rain.

• Learn about the dangers in the area before you go.

• Have a plan and stick to it. If you’re going into water, create a float plan.

• Check out the entire area before you swim for possible dangers.

• Don’t dive or jump into water unless you know for certain what’s underneath the surface.

• When supervising children, never take your eye off them and thoroughly inspect the area, looking for possible underwater hazards, currents and deep patches. Set strict area limits.

• Always wear flotation devices when in watercraft and use the appropriate vessel for the location.

• Keep limitations in mind; not everyone has the same swimming abilities or endurance.

• Never drink alcohol and swim.

• For more information about safe places to swim at any base, check with the safety office.

Information provided by base safety officials


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