Okinawa sea rescue turns harrowing for the rescuers, too
ONNA, Okinawa — A pair of would-be rescuers, including a Marine, had to be rescued themselves early Monday when they became trapped in a cave by Okinawa’s unpredictable weather.
After being stranded for some nine hours and constantly smashed by 15- to 20-foot waves, the pair were plucked from the cave just after midnight by two pararescuemen from Kadena Air Base.
Okinawa police said the watery drama began about 4 p.m. Sunday when a 27-year-old woman from Tokyo was swept out to sea by a strong gust of wind while trying to swim to shore at Maeda Point, on Okinawa’s northwest shore.
Three men jumped into water to assist her, but they also were overcome by the strong winds and high waves. People on the shore called for emergency assistance.
The woman and her Okinawan diving instructor were rescued from the water, where they were holding onto rocks, at 5:20 p.m. by a Japanese coast guard helicopter.
Meanwhile, the other two rescuers, Chief Warrant Officer Bonifacio T. Cadiz, 41, a Marine stationed on Camp Hansen, and Tetsuya Kiuchi, 26, an assistant diving instructor from a diving shop in Chatan, found their way to shelter in a cave. With the weather worsening, a call was made for assistance from Kadena’s 31st Rescue Squadron.
An HH-60 Pave Hawk from the squadron arrived about 8:30 p.m., said 2nd Lt. Timothy L. James, a 31st Rescue Squadron combat rescue officer.
“We flew over the site and got a visual confirmation of the two survivors,” James said. “They were lodged in a hole that was approximately three feet wide, three feet tall, and perhaps three to four feet deep and just above the point where 15- to 20-feet waves were crashing into the side of the cliff.”
Staff Sgt. Mark Molnar, the mission team leader, was hoisted down from the helicopter.
“I got within a foot of them — I could have touched them,” Molnar said. “But just then a big wave crashed in and we realized it would be hard to hoist them out.”
He said the helicopter was being buffeted toward the cliff face by 40 mph winds. So, for safety, they had try another tactic.
They arranged a hoist system from the top of the cliff, and James was lowered some 80 to 100 feet down to the cave.
Kiuchi was rescued at 12:20 a.m., and an hour later Cadiz was pulled out of the cave. Cadiz was taken to U.S. Naval Hospital, and the three Japanese were taken to Nakagami Hospital in Okinawa City.
Officials reported that the men were uninjured. The woman was treated for minor cuts on her forehead.
Molnar, who has been a pararescueman for eight years, said it was one of the most dangerous rescue missions he’s faced.
“I’d say this was pretty out of the ordinary for us,” he said. “It’s not very often you’re faced with the hazards — the high surf, the winds and being so close to a cliff face — that this presented.”
James credited the close working relationship between U.S. forces and Japanese military and civilian services for the rescue’s success.
“It was nice to see how smoothly we worked together,” he said. “It goes to show that when the U.S. and Japanese forces work together, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished.”