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Community reactions negative, mixed in U.S. Marine helicopter crash in Ginowan

Date Posted: 2004-08-20

The crash last Friday of a military helicopter several hundred yards off an American base in Ginowan is being met with a variety of protests, complaints and concerns.

The Sea Stallion CH53D helicopter crashed about 2:20p.m Friday, moments after taking off from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in the heart of Ginowan City. The helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University, injuring the three crewmen.

The pilot is reported in stable condition, while the other two crew members suffered minor injuries.

Initial reports are that the heavy lift helicopter lost it’s tail rotor, causing the machine to lose control, twisting its way down to the ground alongside the university administration building, where 25 employees were working. There were no injuries suffered by the staff. No students were in the area, because the school is on summer break.

Protesters quickly filled the streets near the university as word spread about the crash. Placards appeared condemning the crash, and demanding the immediate closure of Futenma. Okinawa Prefectural Police, Ginowan authorities and U.S. military police took charge of providing security at and around the crash site, where traffic was snarled for several hours as emergency vehicles moved in and out of the area.

As media began piecing together reports from various eyewitnesses and area residents, first came confirmation there were no casualties on the ground. The helicopter, witnesses said, had its tail rotor unit break away, causing it to gyrate as it came down 150 meters outside the Futenma base. Fourteen homes suffered damage of broken windows or doors by flying pieces of wreckage after the helicopter hit the ground, caught fire and reportedly exploded. At least 118 pieces of wreckage were identified at the crash scene and hundreds of meters away. The tail section rotor was found at Gareko Community Hall 340 meters from the site where the helicopter set down along side the university building.

Ginowan fire vehicles were first on the scene, followed by U.S. military firefighting equipment. The fire was contained quickly, and was put out completely in less than one hour.

First frustrations and anger on the part of Okinawan authorities came quickly as they were denied access to the crash site by American military police. Okinawa Prefectural Police were turned away, as were local officials including Ginowan Mayor Youichi Iha, who’s been lobbying for immediate closure of the Futenma base on the grounds it is extremely dangerous to his community because of the potential for crashes.

Apologies from the U.S. authorities were quick to come. Lieutenant General Robert Blackman, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force and the senior military leader on the island, went to Vice Governor Hirotaka Makino late Friday to express his regrets. Makino is the senior Prefectural official on island, as Governor Keiichi Inamine is traveling in South America.

By telephone, Inamine said “I feel very bad. It is really a sad accident with gravity. I will ask the U.S. military to investigate carefully and ask them to never again let it happen.” Inamine says he’s also telling the Americans that “Futenma Air Station has to hurry up and be returned.”

Ginowan Mayor Youichi Iha emphatically agrees. The most angry of all officials over the weekend, Iha says “this accident is the worst case in Okinawa. Now everyone knows how much Futenma Air Station is a dangerous place. We’ll protest to the U.S. Marine Corps and require them to stop using Futenma now as a helioport.”

Okinawa Prefectural Government officials want to to participate in the investigation, and is telling the Marine Corps “we would like to do our own investigation, so could we come in and see the wreckage.” The initial military answer was “no, nobody can come near the helicopter. It might be dangerous.” That position was softened by Monday, and investigators were given some access to the crash site. Later Monday, trees were trimmed away and the helicopter wreckage recovered and moved to Futenma.

Protesters attempted to intervene as trucks left the scene with the helicopter. Police kept them at bay, letting the military vehicles safely leave the area.

Shogo Arai, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was one turned away from visiting the crash site in his official capacity. He was told “sorry, this helicopter belongs to the U.S. and nobody can touch it.” Upset, Arai lashed out that “Japan is not Iraq. Japanese land is our territory and the U.S. Marine Corps should not have supremacy at all. The SOFA is something the U.S. Marine Corps should follow the rules.” He added that the crash was on university property, and that should make it the prefecture’s right to investigate. Arai says he will talk to the military to make them understand the community’s position.

Prefectural police did enter the university administration building, which was not damaged. The giant helicopter brushed the wall as it crashed down, but did no internal damage. University President Chomei Toguchi says “we would like to confiscate the helicopter and do our investigation.” That didn’t happen, and the military Monday moved the wreckage.

Reports circulated early in the week that Prefectural police are proposing action against the three American helicopter crewman, and will make their recommendations to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Decisions were made in 1996 that Futenma should be shifted to a new location, and Japanese authorities settled on a site near Henoko in the northern part of the island. Construction of the new base has dragged, as environmental concerns for a sea mammal, the dudong, and discovery of rare coral in the proposed base site, are uncovered.

Friday’s crash had even the top Okinawa officials at odds with each other as to what should happen next.

Vice Governor Makino told the news media “to get away from dangerous accidents, we might have to change our plan to transfer Futenma Air Station to Henoko, moving it someplace else.”

Governor Inamine was quick to reject his deputy’s opinion, firing back that “No, we won’t change our plan. Futenma still has to transfer to outside of Henoko. I’m not saying we will change that plan.”

The Headquarters, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, weighed in too, asking the vice governor “what are you talking about? You said we might change the planning. No. You must have something wrong.” Makino responded he’d made a mistake, saying “oh no, no, no. We didn’t mean that to transfer the heliport to outside of Henoko. We still say that is a go ahead. But it was right after the shocking accident, and we had to say something to the Okinawa people.

“Our plan has never changed. We still keep our plan that the base will transfer to Henoko. If we said it like that, though, the Okinawa people will never forgive us. We had to say something to understanding opinion, otherwise the citizens will kill us.”

Governor Inamine was calm, saying “to quickly transfer from Futenma to outside Henoko is the best opinion, and quickly returning the bases comes true too.” Inamine said he’d return to Okinawa immediately to meet with U.S. officials.

Another official said “this time is an accident, and transferring the heliport is a different thing. We must not mix them.”

And Nago City Mayor Takeo Kishimoto stands firm that the Futenma facility will shift to his community. “We are not changing our plan because of this accident. We still accept the heliport to our place. We should discuss with military authorities what kind of helicopter that had the accident, and we can require the military doesn’t fly the same time of helicopter. Was something wrong with that helicopter, or what? We must know the reason why it crashed, so we can communicate about what is best for each other.”

Henoko area community boss Yasumasu Oshiro agrees. “I’m sure it’s frightening when we have an accident, but we cannot run away from them. What we need to think is flight routes that are away from residents houses, and keep safety for residents. Of course the military will know what the dangerous routes are, and where the safety routes for flights are, over the ocean.” Oshiro says the heliport must focus on safety, because “the social situation says so. We’ll still accept the Heliport here outside Henoko.”

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