NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) — A window fell from a U.S. military transport helicopter onto the grounds of an elementary school in Okinawa on Wednesday, triggering renewed anger and concern in the prefecture that hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
A student was slightly injured when gravel was thrown up as the 8-kilogram metal-framed window hit the playground of the school in the city of Ginowan, located just next to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, local authorities said. About 50 students were in the playground at the time.
“The safety of children should come first. It is unforgivable that it dropped in the middle of the playground,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga told reporters as he visited the site.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the incident “stirred concern” among the people of the island prefecture, while Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said separately he wants the U.S. military to suspend flights of the same type of helicopter until safety is confirmed.
The U.S. military admitted that the object was a window from a CH-53E helicopter belonging to the Futenma base and the aircraft immediately returned to base following the incident.
“This is a regrettable incident and we apologize for any anxiety it has caused the community,” the U.S. Marine Corps said in a media release, adding it is investigating the cause in coordination with local authorities.
Brig. Gen. Paul Rock, who oversees Marine Corps installations in the Pacific region, told Okinawa Deputy Gov. Moritake Tomikawa the same day that all the CH-53Es at the Futenma base have been grounded for safety checks.
The window and frame, around 1 square meter in size, fell onto the playground of the Futenma Daini Elementary School around 10:15 a.m. The nearest student, who was attending a physical education class, was only about 5 meters away, according to a group of city assembly members who went to the site.
Shattered glass was also found at the site, while parents, worried about their children, rushed to the school. The students in the playground at the time were second and fourth graders.
“I was so surprised that I trembled,” said Erina Nakama, a 54-year-old principal of a nursery school about 100 meters away. “We are responsible for the lives of the children. I’m really worried because there is no way we can get away from (this kind of incident).”
Yukito Uezu, 35, who lives near the Futenma Daini school, said he heard the sound of a helicopter flying at low altitude from around 9:30 a.m. and then police sirens.
“Just going outside makes me feel anxious. I want the U.S. military to properly work on aircraft safety,” he said.
The incident occurred less than a week after a small cylindrical object was found on the roof of a nursery school in Ginowan that local government and school officials believe fell from a U.S. military aircraft.
The U.S. Marine Corps has admitted the object was part of a CH-53 helicopter but denied that it fell off during flight.
Given the conflicting opinions, the nursery school has received dozens of telephone calls and emails criticizing it for “telling a lie” or “trying to make up a story.”
Takehiro Kamiya, the nursery school’s principal, said Tuesday, “I don’t want the prefectural and central governments to accept without question what the U.S. military says. I want people on the mainland to think of this as their problem.”
The Japanese and U.S. governments struck an accord in 1996 on the return of land used for the Futenma base after public anger was fueled over the 1995 rape of a local girl by three American servicemen. But progress has been slow, with many locals opposed to the current plan to relocate the base within Okinawa.
Under the plan, the Futenma base is expected to be moved from a densely populated area of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal district of Nago.
Okinawans are frustrated by noise, crime and accidents linked to U.S. bases. Safety concerns were recently rekindled by a series of accidents involving U.S. Marines Osprey aircraft and another CH-53E helicopter belonging to the Futenma base.