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GSDF chopper crash: Nearby children took cover, girl in home narrowly escaped

Firefighters continue efforts to extinguish the flames that engulfed a residence where a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter crashed, in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, on Feb. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

KANZAKI, Saga -- Loud explosions, falling helicopter parts, burning houses... That was the scene here as a Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) helicopter crashed on the evening of Feb. 5. If things had been even a little bit different, the accident could have involved many more people in the area.

The crash marks the fourth fatal Self-Defense Forces helicopter accident during the 2017 fiscal year, including the May 2017 crash of a GSDF communication and reconnaissance aircraft in the mountains of Hokuto, Hokkaido, which killed all four members on board.

At Dairyuji combined kindergarten and day care center roughly 200 meters away from the site of the Feb. 5 crash, vice principal Michiyo Hirao, 50, ran outside when she heard a loud bang. She witnessed the helicopter propellers flying off the aircraft mid-air. Thinking that it would surely crash, she turned and yelled, "Take cover!" to the children. Hirao said around three groups of children and their parents saw the moment the helicopter went down in the residential area.

In a matter of seconds, the roof of the two-story residence of Takashi Kawaguchi, 35, collapsed under the weight of the fallen attack chopper and plumes of fire were seen erupting from the scene. Hirao called to a nearby staff member to call emergency services and sent an emergency mail out to all parents that the children were safe and to stay away from the area, as the crash aligned with pick-up time. There were roughly 60 children aged 5 and younger inside at the time.

Rushing to the scene of the crash, Hirao found Kawaguchi. He told her, "My daughter has some light injuries, but it's nothing serious. I don't care about the house. It's more important that the whole family is safe."

Kawaguchi lived with his wife, son in the first year of junior high school, and fifth grade daughter, 11. Only his daughter was home at the time of the crash. The helicopter fell on the eastern side of the house while she had been on the western side, only sustaining minor injuries. According to a neighbor, Kawaguchi's daughter escaped with her 69-year-old grandmother who lived with her grandfather in a house directly adjacent to Kawaguchi's home. That house was also partially burnt. Held in her grandmother's arms, the girl reportedly was crying in a state of panic.

After hearing the sound of an explosion overhead, many other residents witnessed the distressed helicopter plummet, while parts of the craft fell -- numerous scattered fragments were discovered as far as some 200 meters west of the crash site in a rice paddy field.

At a gas station roughly 800 meters west, 32-year-old Mitsunobu Hachiya said, "I heard a dull 'thud,' and thought a car had hit a telephone pole. When I spotted the helicopter overhead, the main rotor was already detached, and the aircraft made a nose dive. The exploded parts were scattered all around." While the wind was blowing slightly and the sky was cloudy, Hachiya said it was light enough for him to be able to discern the colors of the helicopter.

With a helicopter crashing into a residential area, the thoughts of many locals turned to the situation in Okinawa Prefecture, where incidents of U.S. military helicopters crashing or making emergency landings have been occurring one after another. A 65-year-old woman living around 300 meters from the crash site said, "I was reminded of the accident when helicopter parts fell in Okinawa and my body began to shake."

"I was about to leave the house to go to the dentist when I heard a loud bang and saw a roughly 20-meter-high flame rise up accompanied by black smoke," said another nearby resident, Hajime Noguchi, 55, who lives roughly 200 meters from the crash site. "Helicopters are usually flying overhead and it's noisy, but if possible, I want them to stop flying over us."

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