School fears helo crash contaminated soil
GINOWAN, Okinawa — When students return for Okinawa International University’s fall semester, they’ll find some major changes.
The administration building will be closed while repairs to the cement structure are made after the Aug. 13 crash of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopter. The building’s southern end remains blackened by the ensuing fire; the outer walls still bear the gouges left where rotor blades clipped them before the helicopter came to rest near the building.
The craft exploded into flames shortly after Marines had climbed two barbed-wire fences separating the school from Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to rescue the three crew members.
No civilian injuries were reported. The school was on summer break; hundreds of people were on campus instead of the 6,000 expected when classes resume Oct. 2. Just 22 people were in the administration building when the crash occurred, officials said.
Outside the building, the wreckage has been cleared; trees were cut down or trimmed to enable the removal of the aircraft’s twisted hulk; the top few inches of soil were scooped up and replaced.
Hitoshi Nakasone, a school spokesman, said the soil bothers him the most, and he’s confused about why U.S. military and national and prefectural government officials asked the school to take part in an environmental survey of the crash site soil.
For now, the university has rejected the request, demanding the military first disclose to it what was in the dirt it hauled away.
“The military already has samples of the soil,” said Nakasone. “When they removed the wreckage, they scraped soil from the campus and loaded it onto a truck. Wasn’t that for an environmental test?
“We want the military to first release their findings,” he said, adding that the school also wants a detailed report concerning how the accident occurred.
No damage estimate has been made for the school, where interior furnishings, including furniture, files and computers, also were damaged extensively, Nakasone said.
The Marine Corps has released a report on its initial findings. It states that the crash appears to have been caused by a small retaining device missing in a tail rotor assembly subcomponent, leading to a loss of control of the tail rotor. Witnesses said they saw the helicopter struggle to keep aloft.
U.S. military officials, reacting to rumors circulating on Okinawa, said the helicopter was not carrying depleted uranium and that no substances taken from the wreckage site subsequently were dumped into the sea.
Nakasone said school officials want to see documentation to that effect. “We believe it is our right to demand these findings, as it is our duty to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and the general public visiting our university,” he said.
In a Marine Corps statement released Monday in response to Nakasone’s comments, 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious said the Corps “wants to conduct a soil survey because there may be a potential contamination with the soil at the CH-53D accident site. The potential contamination includes JP-5, hydraulic fluid, and various motor and gear oils. In order to determine the contamination, a detailed environmental assessment should be conducted.”
Andrious said the Marine Corps initially wanted to conduct a joint assessment with the Japanese and Okinawa prefectural authorities and Ginowan City. However, after learning of the requirements of the Japanese Soil Contamination Countermeasures law, the Marine Corps immediately began contracting for an environmental assessment with a certified Japanese company.
“The Marine Corps has awarded a contract with a certified Japanese company in accordance with the Japanese Soil Contamination Countermeasures law,” Andrious said. “Upon completion of this assessment, the Marine Corps will continue to work with Japanese and Okinawa prefectural authorities in soil remediation, site restoration, and compensation for property damages as a result of the accident.
“We, in the Marine Corps, are proud of our working relationship with the Okinawan people,” he stated.
The function of the university’s administration building was paralyzed by the crash, Nakasone said. “To continue the university’s administrative work, the offices have been moved to different buildings on the campus, wherever there is available space.”
He said the crash traumatized some of those who happened to be on campus when the crash occurred. “Although it was during summer break, it does not mean there were no students on the campus,” he said. “There were some intensive courses going on, 22 employees were in the administration building and there were citizens in the library; we keep it open to the community.”
He said he was inside the administration building when the helicopter struck.
“I ran out of the building immediately after I heard a big explosive noise,” he said. “I saw the helicopter crash onto the ground, about 15 to 20 meters (about 50 to 66 feet) away from where I was standing. At that instant, a fire occurred in the cockpit and I heard voices calling for help.
“But all I could do was to stop people from going near the helicopter,” he said.
Nakasone said the crew members’ cries for help and the agony etched on their faces as they were rescued from the wreckage are burned into his memory.
“I know there are many people who witnessed the crash who now suffer from mental trauma,” he said. “At times I find it difficult, myself, to control my tears and I am sometimes overwhelmed with sadness.
“Although I am getting a little better, there are others who still have frequent nightmares about the accident and have difficulties in sleeping,” he said, adding that the university is providing counseling for those who suffer from psychological problems.
When discussing the nearby air station, Nakasone appeared angry. “We don’t want the air station to be here any longer,” he said, noting that in 1996 the U.S. and Japan agreed Futenma MCAS should be closed within seven years and moved to an alternate location on Okinawa, far from the island’s urban center. A site has been selected for a new base in the waters off the island’s northeast shore. But opponents, citing environmental concerns, have hobbled its progress; construction has yet to begin.