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Okinawa to demand flight freeze, investigation after US military helicopter fire

The burned-out U.S. military CH-53E transport helicopter that made an emergency landing after an onboard fire lies in a field in the Takae area of Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 12, 2017. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- Okinawa is set to demand that all U.S. Marine CH-53E Sea Stallion transport helicopters based in the prefecture be grounded after one of the helicopters caught fire and made an emergency landing in a private field on Oct. 11.

The prefectural government will submit demands for a freeze on Sea Stallion flights and an accident investigation to both the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau and the Foreign Ministry's Okinawa Liaison Office on Oct. 12. Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga is also scheduled to visit the accident site the same day.

Meanwhile, the blaze has reignited safety concerns among residents living near the island's U.S. military installations.

The chopper landed on a privately owned field in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, not far from a helipad that had been the center of intense protests during its construction. The large CH-53E transport helicopter is a later variant of the CH-53D model chopper that crashed at Okinawa International University in August 2004 in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, where Futenma is located. While there were no injuries confirmed in the latest accident, the danger of living side-by-side with U.S. military installations has once again sparked anxiety and anger.

Personnel work to put out the flaming CH-53E U.S. military transport helicopter that made an emergency landing in Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper)

"I heard the sound of explosions like 'bang, bang, bang,' and then saw the helicopter enveloped in flames," recounted 63-year-old farmer Mieko Nishime, who lives some 500 meters from the field in the Takae area of the village of Higashi where the accident occurred.

On the evening of Oct. 11 Nishime heard the sound of a large explosion when she was weeding in the garden of her house. When the chopper burst into flames, black smoke spread around the area. After that, she says two other U.S. helicopters landed and then took off again. It appears they may have been rescuing the crew of the fallen aircraft. Fire trucks and U.S. military vehicles soon gathered in the field.

The grazing area is part of Nishime and her family's property, and a pig pen where her father works stands nearby. No one in the family was injured, and there was no damage to their property, but Nishime said, "If it had fallen on our house or pig pen, there would have been serious damage."

In the Takae area of Higashi, relocating helipads due to the return of roughly half of the U.S. Northern Training Area to Okinawa Prefecture is progressing. As of December 2016, six helipad locations surrounding the hamlet have been constructed. The accident occurred just as residents' worries about the start of full operations of those new helipads were reaching fever pitch.

"I think the accident occurred precisely because of the helipad," said Nishime. "What will happen when full-scale operations begin?"

A U.S. Navy CH-53E helicopter (Photo from the U.S. military's Defense Video Imagery Distribution System website)

Opposed to the new helipads, Yukine Ashimine, 46, moved from her house nearby a construction site in Higashi to the village of Kunigami. When she heard about the accident, she rushed to the scene.

"Along with the smoke and fire, the smell was terrible," she said. "I continually protested that 'people living nearby would suffer damages.' This is the result of forcefully going through with the construction."

A man who lives near the field was driving when he saw the black smoke billowing up from the direction of his house and quickly returned home. "Helicopters often fly at low altitudes, and it scares me stiff," he said.

Surrounded by the media in Naha, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga angrily commented, "This is simply outrageous."

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