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KUNIGAMI, Okinawa — Three Kadena Air Base airmen were rescued by local fishermen Saturday after they were stranded on a reef.

According to a Japan Coast Guard spokesman, the incident was reported at 5:10 p.m. by a Japanese woman who said her three American friends were in trouble on a reef near Kunigami Village, near the U.S. military’s Okuma Recreation Center on Okinawa’s northwest shore.

A Kadena Air Base official said the trio included one airman assigned to the 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron and two airmen first class assigned to the 18th Security Forces Squadron. They were not seriously injured.

The 28-year-old woman who accompanied the airmen told police that one of her friends had difficulty while snorkeling and the other two airmen left their small boat to rescue him, but all wound up stranded on the reef.

The report was relayed to Naoyuki Maekawa, the district mayor of Sosu, the small community closest to the reef. Police asked if a boat was available, but Maekawa said the villagers decided on a different course.

“Because preparing a boat takes some time, we chose a quicker way to reach the reef,” he said.

Three veteran fishermen, Tokuo Kinjo, Katsuya Chinen, both in their 70s, and Hiroyuki Shinjo, in his 50s, volunteered to help, Maekawa said.

Maekawa said he and the other fishermen knew about a shallow path to the reef from shore that only people who lived in the area knew. The tide was flowing in and the water was about chest high, but the fishermen carefully walked out to the reef, about 218 yards offshore, put life jackets on the three shivering airmen and ushered them to shore.

It took about an hour, he said.

In the meantime, about 10 village residents gathered on the beach and made a fire and boiled some water to warm the airmen when they reached shore.

“I am very proud of our veteran fishermen, who responded very quickly, and the all-out effort made by the residents,” Maekawa said.

He said Ie Beach, where the incident took place, “is a very dangerous area.”

“When the tide changes, a whirlpool occurs,” he said. “It is an area the local residents stay away from.”

Maekawa said he has lived in the area for more than 30 years and has seen several drownings at Ie Beach. “There are signs to warn people not to engage in any water activities in the area,” he said, adding that many Americans use the beach.

“The beach and water are so beautiful that they might seem to be inviting, but it is one of the most dangerous sites on the island,” he said.

Snorkeling not so easy, says water-safety chief

Grab a pair of fins, a mask and snorkel and off you go.

Not so fast, says a local expert on water safety.

“People tend to think that snorkeling is so easy … because all you need is a snorkel and fins. But that idea is wrong and dangerous,” said Michio Sunagawa, chief of the Water Safety Countermeasure Office, Okinawa Prefectural Police.

“Compared to scuba diving, snorkeling is far more prone to accidents because many snorkelers lack necessary knowledge,” he said. “All snorkelers should take a safety class.”

Nine of Okinawa’s 26 drowning victims in the last year died while snorkeling and of 14 Americans who died in water-related incidents in the past five years, four were snorkelers. Sunagawa said putting on snorkeling gear makes some people overconfident, forgetting that it’s the gear that keeps them afloat.

And when they stop floating to let water out of their masks or to look around and get their bearings they realize they are in way over their heads, he added. All nine of last year’s snorkeling fatalities were nonswimmers.

Sunagawa urged snorkelers to adhere to five basic principles when snorkeling:

Always wear a life jacket or some other sort of floatation device.Never snorkel alone; use the buddy system.Take a safety training class. Snorkeling instruction is available at most U.S. military beaches.Never snorkel when under the influence of alcohol or feeling ill.Choose a safe place for snorkeling and be aware of the reef current that is unique to Okinawan waters. Ask experienced snorkelers about the best places to take the plunge. Stay away from beaches known for dangerous rip currents.— David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida

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