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TOKYO — Officials from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa detailed the events surrounding the recent crash of a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter in a briefing at the U.S. Embassy on Friday, emphasizing that the problem was “unique” to that single aircraft while praising the work of military and local emergency responders for minimizing the threat levels and protecting lives.

The helicopter went down Aug. 13 in Ginowan City, Okinawa, clipping a university building during an emergency landing.

Flight operations at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, where the aircraft are deployed in support of the 31st MEU, were suspended for two days after the accident, in which three crewmembers were injured but no civilian casualties occurred. The base’s Sea Stallions remained grounded until Sunday, when six were cleared to join the unit on its way to Iraq; the rest remain grounded until the investigation is completed.

“The decision to return these six CH-53D helicopters to flight operations was not one made in haste,” a 3rd MEF official said. “These six CH-53Ds were cleared for a direct flight to the USS Essex only after the commander had determined that the cause of the accident was solely unique to the CH-53D involved in the accident, and only after each of these six CH-53D aircraft had received a complete and thorough safety and maintenance inspection.”

None have flown since Aug. 22, said Brig. Gen. James Flock, deputy commander of the 3rd MEF during a similar briefing for the press on Okinawa on Friday evening.

“There have been no mission-essential flight requirements for these aircraft,” Flock said during the briefing at Marine Headquarters on Camp Foster. “We are still in the process of conducting our procedural stand-down on the CH-53D aircraft, and once that action is complete, the prudent measure is to move these aircraft — these remaining CH-53D aircraft — back to their home base (in Iwakuni) on mainland Japan.”

Flock then recounted the moments leading up to the crash — and the steps taken by the Marine Corps in the accident’s aftermath.

According to accounts given at the briefings, at 2:17 p.m. Aug. 13, Futenma’s air-traffic control tower received an emergency distress call from an inbound CH-53D assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265. Marine Corps Crash Fire and Rescue, along with local Okinawa fire departments, immediately were notified.

About a minute later, the helicopter made an emergency landing on the grounds of Okinawa International University, grazing a building adjacent to the crash site. At 2:19 p.m., another military aircrew reported that it had seen an aircraft land and catch fire outside Futenma.

“Marines stationed on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma witnessed the CH-53D going down, scaled two fences to get to the crash site and pulled the three crewmembers away from the wreckage before the aircraft burst into flames,” Flock said. “We think that the actions of these brave Marines helped save the lives of the aircraft crew. These Marines then administered first aid to the injured crew.”

Other Futenma Marines entered the building that had been clipped and helped evacuate people. A Japanese fire truck, Japanese ambulance and Marine Corps Crash, Fire and Rescue vehicles also arrived on scene. Military police and the Okinawa Prefectural Police escorted bystanders from the accident site.

Over the next six days, Okinawa Prefectural Police and the Marine Corps secured the area until the wreckage was removed and an investigation launched.

“I cannot emphasize enough the crucial role that Ginowan Police and Okinawa Prefectural Police played to ensure the safety of the citizens,” Flock said. “The OPP had a riot-control unit on the scene for the majority of the first day, and their presence helped to ease and calm the situation.”

Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., 3rd MEF commander and Okinawa area coordinator, immediately ordered all helicopters back to Futenma that afternoon and suspended flight operations, pending a full safety inspection.

A Marine CH-53D expert at the Tokyo briefing said for every hour the aircraft is flown, 15-20 hours are devoted to a safety review.

The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing on Okinawa organized the crash inquiry, he said, with assistance from the U.S. Naval Safety Center and U.S. Naval Air Systems Command.

The Okinawa Prefectural Police wanted to conduct a criminal investigation at the crash site, but Marine officials maintained they were in charge of the scene, under guidelines established in the Status of Forces Agreement, a move that angered many Okinawa officials.

“The U.S. is the primary office for handling wreckage after a mishap,” the Marine official in Tokyo said.

On Aug. 17, the Marine Corps offered Okinawa prefectural authorities access to the accident site and surrounding areas to survey property damage, he added. That’s also when Marines officials, following a safety inspection, lifted the suspension of flight operations for all Futenma helicopters except for the CH-53D aircraft.

Removal of aircraft debris was completed Aug. 19, Flock said, adding that the Marine Corps is working with Japanese and Okinawa government authorities on the site restoration and compensation for personal property damages.

On Aug. 20, the investigation’s initial phase produced a cause for the crash.

“It was solely unique to the CH-53D involved in the accident,” Flock said. “A small retaining device in a subcomponent of the tail rotor assembly was missing, leading to a loss of tail rotor control. Following that determination, and after a thorough and complete maintenance and safety inspection of all remaining CH-53D helicopters, these aircraft were cleared for flight.

“We do not know why that part was missing. That’s why we’re conducting a thorough and complete investigation."

That examination, which began Aug. 14, is expected to take about 30 days.

“It’s a very complex process we’re talking about,” the Marine official in Tokyo said. “It’s got to be done correctly, and it will be done correctly.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. government funded a Japanese company to perform an environmental assessment in accordance with the National Japanese Soil Contamination Counter-measures Law, so that remediation efforts could proceed at the crash site.

Also, Marine and Japanese Defense Facilities Administration Naha Bureau representatives are paying owabi, or condolence visits to Ginowan residents who suffered property damage. During such visits, small monetary payments are usually made, not to be confused for compensation for actual damages.

“The Marine Corps has said from the very outset of this accident that we take aviation safety very seriously, that we will conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this accident, and that we will take every appropriate measure to prevent any reoccurrence in the future,” Flock said. “We remain committed to that mission.

“We sincerely regret that this accident occurred and the anxiety that this mishap caused the people of Okinawa.”

—Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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