Okinawans plan rallies to protest helo crash
August 21, 2004
GINOWAN, Okinawa — A rally is scheduled Saturday at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to protest the Aug. 13 crash of a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter into a university building just outside the base’s fence line.
Sponsors of the rally, the Okinawa Peace Center, say the demonstration will take place at 6 p.m. in front of the air station’s Gate 2, the one closest to the accident site. They say they hope to attract 1,500 protesters.
It’s expected to be one of several rallies to protest the resumption of flights and demand the base, in the heart of an urban area, be closed before a replacement facility, planned for the waters off the Marines’ Camp Schwab, can be built.
That project has been delayed by protesters who have staged a sit-in preventing an environmental survey of the area. Japanese officials say it could be 10 years or more before a new airport can be built.
The city of Ginowan is planning a rally in early September at a site to be determined near the crash site; a city spokesman said some 10,000 people are expected to attend.
The helicopter’s three crew members were injured when their craft clipped the school’s administration building and crashed between the building and a city street. No civilians were hurt, but Okinawa police say helicopter debris was found up to 370 yards from the crash site and damaged homes and vehicles.
Meanwhile, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday after cutting short a trip to Bolivia. During a news conference at the prefecture’s Tokyo office, he also demanded all flight operations at Futenma be suspended but did not support closing the base permanently.
He said he would ask national government officials on Thursday to press the U.S. military to halt flight operations pending the results of an investigation into the accident.
The investigation also has become a sore point between Okinawa police and the Marines. While the police have complained about not being able to examine the wreckage, the Marines say that in restricting the off-base crash site, they clearly have acted within the provisions of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.
Okinawa prefectural authorities wrote the Marine Corps Aug. 14 requesting “‘consent of inspection’ in regard to the investigation into the CH-53D helicopter accident,” 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious stated in a Marine Corps news release issued Tuesday. “Specifically, the Okinawa prefectural authorities expressed their concern over property damage. ... In reply, the Marine Corps offered Okinawa Prefectural authorities access to the accident site and surrounding areas for the exclusive purpose of observing any property damage.”
“The Marine Corps will continue to work extensively with Japan and Okinawa Prefectural authorities in joint security matters, removal of aircraft debris, site restoration, and compensation for damages as a result of the accident,” he said. “The process of extracting aircraft wreckage from the site has commenced in order to facilitate the aircraft mishap investigation and to expedite site restoration efforts.”
In Tokyo, Inamine said the accident showed the importance of moving forward with the Henoko project.
“It is imperative to remove the dangerous situation as soon as possible,” he told reporters. “The accident reminded us once again of the danger of having an air station located in the middle of a heavily populated area.”
He said the quick resumption of flights at Futenma “rudely grates against the sensibilities of the people of Okinawa.”