Okinawa drownings spark 4-day water sports ban
By CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The apparent drowning deaths of two Okinawa-based servicemembers in the same area less than a day apart have sparked a four-day ban on water sports for all U.S. military personnel on the island prefecture officials said Tuesday.
The deaths occurred over the weekend at Maeda Point on Okinawa’s west coast. It’s not far from Mermaid Grotto in Manza-Mo, where Petty Officer 1st Class Jorge NoriegaSuarez, a fleet Marine force corpsman and advance X-ray technician assigned to the 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, died Oct. 10 in an apparent diving accident.
Investigations are underway into all three deaths. The water sports ban began Monday.
Marine Sgt. Aubrey D. Williams, of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force, was pronounced dead about 3:40 p.m. Saturday at Maeda Point, a Marine Corps statement said.
The next day, Lance Cpl. Sebastian Borja-Diaz, a driver for the 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force was pronounced dead nearby about 1:40 p.m., according to a Marine Corps statement and Maeda Point Administration officials.
Access to Maeda Point, which features coastal rock formations and reefs that have become synonymous with Okinawa and diving, was closed over the weekend because of high winds.
“On both days, the sea was not in a condition for any water activities,” said Masahiko Afuso, an official with the Maeda Point Management Office. Afuso said he was at his office, which stands near a stairway to the water at Maeda Point, when the accidents happened.
The stairway was closed both days, he said.
“About the same place and about the same time, two accidents involving Americans occurred,” he said.
On Saturday, there was a group of Americans — two men and one woman — at the nearby beach, Afuso said. On Sunday, there were four American men at the same beach, he said.
When the site is closed for water activities, signs and banners are put up at the entrance to the parking lot to let visitors know that entering the water is banned, he said.
“Locals know that Maeda Point is not a place for water activities after late September until April,” Afuso said. “They can tell the potential danger by just looking at the water. But those who do not know Okinawan sea conditions well, like American people or tourists, they often go around to a nearby beach to enter the water when the stairway is closed.”
Maeda Point experienced frequent water-related accidents before the management office started to control an access to water 10 years ago, Afuso said.
“Before that, it was like a lawless place,” he said. “When north winds start blowing, the sea becomes rough and Maeda Point, Manza-Mo and Zampa Cape, all similar terrain and located by the East China Sea, are not for water activities.”
The management office posts seas condition daily on its website: www.maedamisaki.jp/en/.
As of Tuesday, there have been 12 water-related accidents involving 32 Americans covered by SOFA, including eight fatalities, on Okinawa over the past two years.