USFJ commander: Deadly weekend a tragic wake-up call
May 16, 2007
Four U.S. military fatalities over the weekend on Okinawa and mainland Japan prompted U.S. Forces Japan commander Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Wright to urge a renewed emphasis on personal safety.
“It’s been a tough weekend for U.S. Forces Japan,” Wright said in a phone interview Monday. “It should remind all of us we can never reduce or stop our emphasis on safety and our commitment to zero mishaps.”
The latest incident involved a USS Kitty Hawk sailor, who was killed early Sunday after crashing his motorcycle into a guard rail.
Petty Officer 1st Class Diego Lopezzenquis, 31, lost control of his motorcycle on a Sakuragaoka street south of Yokosuka, police and Navy officials said Monday.
The other fatalities were on Okinawa. Two soldiers died from injuries suffered in a Saturday-morning car crash and a U.S. Marine died Saturday after falling from a bridge.
Japanese police say they are investigating the Marine’s death as a suicide.
Lopezzenquis was driving his 1300cc motorcycle downhill around a curve when he hit the guard rail around 3:15 a.m., an Uraga police official said. Lopezzenquis was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later at a local hospital, Kitty Hawk spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Terry Dudley said.
While the cause of the accident is under investigation, police believe Lopezzenquis was likely driving faster than the road’s 30-kph speed limit, a police official said. Whether alcohol was a factor remains a part of the investigation, Dudley said. The U.S. military will perform an autopsy, he said.
“This is a tragic wake-up call in how important it is to constantly review and emphasize safety programs,” Wright said.
No crackdowns affecting off-duty hours or activities will be directed from USFJ, Wright said. But commanders do have authority to tailor their emphasis on safety within their chain of command, he added.
The weekend fatalities will be a topic of discussion at upcoming meetings between Wright and component and installation commanders, as well as senior enlisted leaders, he said.
Wright said he plans to reinforce the importance of safety and personal risk management, with an emphasis on the basics.
“Statistics don’t lie,” he said. “People die from known lapses in judgment, including driving too fast, not fastening their seat belt. I doubt we will find anything new in these fatalities.”
The deaths come just before the military services’ annual “101 Critical Days of Summer” safety campaigns, when servicemembers are reminded that the number of injuries and fatalities associated with sports, recreation and motor vehicle travel typically peaks for the year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Wright believes there is value to such efforts, even if they don’t reach everyone.
“We know that we’ve been able to turn around mishap rates in the past in our military operations and daily lives,” he said. “We’ve kept (accident rates) under control here in Japan. Certainly the fatality rate we’ve seen over the weekend tells us we need to work harder on our safety program.”
A safety culture has to be built “from all of us working together,” Wright said. “Everyone has a responsibility in keeping ourselves and each other alive.”
3 die in accidents; 1 likely suicide
Army Sgt. Richard Thomas Smith
Smith, 27, was a front-seat passenger in a car that ran into a steel pole at 4:48 a.m. along Highway 130 near Camp Foster, Okinawa, on Saturday. He was pronounced dead about two hours later. He was assigned to the 1-1 Air Defense Artillery Battalion (PAC-3) at Kadena Air Base. The driver, Staff Sgt. Anthony West, 39, was listed in stable condition as of Sunday.
Army Sgt. Kenneth J. Thomas
Thomas, 25, was involved in the same car crash that claimed Smith’s life on Saturday. He was riding in the back seat and was pronounced dead at 2:13 p.m. Sunday. He also was assigned to the 1-1 Air Defense Artillery Battalion (PAC-3) at Kadena Air Base.
Unidentified U.S. Marine
Okinawa police in Nago responded to a report of an apparent suicide early Saturday morning by a Marine assigned to the III Marine Expeditionary Force. An Okinawa cab driver who dropped the man off reported the Marine jumped from a bridge in an isolated area in the city’s Yofuke district. Okinawa police are investigating the incident in cooperation with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The deceased’s name was not available Monday.
Petty Officer 1st Class Diego Lopezzenquis
Lopezzenquis, 31, lost control of his motorcycle on a downhill curve, crashing into a guard rail south of Yokosuka around 3:15 a.m. Sunday. He was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later at a local hospital. He worked on the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier as aviation electrician’s mate and had served in the Navy almost 12 years. His hometown was New York City, where his two children live. He was divorced.
Lopezzenquis was “well-liked” and “well-respected” aboard the ship, played softball for two ship teams and was very active in the First Class Petty Officers Association, Kitty Hawk spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Terry Dudley said.
A memorial service was being planned aboard the ship for Wednesday, Dudley said.
— Jennifer H. Svan and Allison Batdorff