Okinawa officials clamor to investigate helo wreck
August 16, 2004
GINOWAN, Okinawa — Okinawa and U.S. military police secured the site where a Marine Corps helicopter crashed Friday while military officials considered a request from the Okinawa prefectural government to participate in the investigation.
And local police expressed frustration Saturday that they had not yet been allowed to examine the wreckage.
The CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashed Friday afternoon on the campus of Okinawa International University, about 330 yards from the fence line of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Eyewitnesses told police they saw the tail rotor of the helicopter detach and fall into a residential area near the university.
The helicopter then “zigzagged” in the air as it descended, according to one witness, until it clipped the wall of the school’s administration building and burst into flames.
The three crew members escaped. Two were treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Camp Lester for minor injuries. The third, with more serious injuries, was upgraded from critical to stable condition late Friday, a Marine Corps spokesman said.
The scene was quiet Saturday. Several small groups of Marines were encamped on both sides of the damaged building. What was left of the wrecked helicopter lay scattered between the building and the street, cordoned off by yellow police tape.
Earlier in the day, three Marines in asbestos gear and oxygen tanks inspected the remains of the charred helicopter, while Okinawa prefectural police were prohibited from entering the crash site.
“Nothing is going to be moved until the joint investigation is complete,” said Marine 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious, a Marine public affairs officer. He said the main crash has been secured and scattered bits of wreckage have been removed from the surrounding residential area.
An Okinawa police spokesman said helicopter debris was found at 18 other locations and some nearby homes were damaged. In the parking space of one home some 100 feet from the crash site, the helicopter’s tail rotor blade lay on a smashed moped.
No civilian casualties were reported.
“We’re not going to move anything at the main crash site until the investigation is over,” Andrious said. “The Okinawa prefectural police allowed us to leave Marines in the area around the scene to help secure the crash site.
“Everything at the site was secured by the Okinawa prefectural police with assistance from Marines,” he said. “This is going to be a joint effort.”
Andrious confirmed the helicopter was attached to the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, or HMM 265, based at Futenma. The names of the three crew members were still being withheld Saturday.
HMM 265 was preparing to be deployed to the Middle East next week.
The road at the main entrance to the university was blocked to traffic and Okinawa riot police lingered in the area in case any new protest demonstrations erupted, similar to an impromptu demonstration near the scene Friday night.
A banner in Japanese and English sponsored by the Student Self-Governing Association at Okinawa International University hung on the school’s main gate. The words in English read, “Let us denounce the U.S. helicopter accident. Remove Futenma Bases!”
Okinawa police formally made the request to participate in the investigation on Saturday. Under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which governs how U.S. troops are managed in Japan, local police need U.S. military approval to conduct investigations that involve U.S. military assets.
“In order to clarify the cause of the accident, it is necessary for us to conduct our own inspections, especially of the helicopter,” Koshin Iraha, chief of criminal investigations, told local reporters. “We would like the approval of the U.S. military to look into the cause of the accident.”
Meanwhile, there were increased moves by Japanese officials to protest the incident and demand a thorough investigation. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ North American Affairs Bureau and the Defense Facilities Administration Agency submitted requests for preventive measures to be taken to avoid another incident.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the accident was something that “should not have happened.”
“It could have been a catastrophe,” he told reporters.
Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha gathered with senior city officials Saturday to discuss how the city should respond to the accident. Iha has just returned from a trip to the United States to lobby for the closure of MCAS Futenma, which is located in the middle of his heavily developed city.
In a move to reduce the area occupied by U.S. bases on Okinawa, the U.S. and Japan agreed in 1996 to close MCAS Futenma once an alternate site for Marine air operations could be prepared. Construction of a new airport in the waters off northeastern Okinawa is still more than 10 years away, according to some Japanese officials.
After inspecting the site Friday, Iha told reporters, “I demand the prefectural and city governments be involved in this investigation and not entrust it solely to the U.S. military.”
He returned to the school Saturday and was outraged that no Japanese officials were allowed to inspect the crash site.
“Who does Okinawa belong to?” he asked. “Japan or the U.S.?”
Saturday was the opening of Ginowan’s annual Hagoromo Festival at the Ginowan Convention Center, and the city issued a request that the commander of MCAS Futenma, who had been invited as a special guest, and anyone else affiliated with the U.S. military stay away.
Also Saturday, the local chapter of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party issued a statement calling for the immediate suspension of all flights from MCAS Futenma. And the local committee of Japan’s Communist Party issued a demand for the “immediate and unconditional” closure of the air station.
— Hana Kusumoto and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.