A window fell from a US military transport helicopter on the grounds of an elementary school in Okinawa on Wednesday, triggering renewed concern in the prefecture which houses most of the US forces in Japan.
The 1-square-meter metal-framed window, weighing about 7.7 kilograms, fell from the CH-53E helicopter as around 60 students were taking physical education classes in a school playground from the town of Ginowan, located just outside the US Marine Corps. Air Station Futenma, local officials said.
According to the school, the students ran to a nearby building after the incident, some of them crying. A fourth-year boy was hit in the arm with flying gravel as the window frame hit the ground, local police and other sources said. There was no obvious mark on him, however.
It is “a miracle” that the incident did not cause any serious injury to the students, said Etsuko Kyan, principal of Futenma Daini primary school. She said the children are so upset that school cannot resume physical education classes any time soon.
The United States Marine Corps apologized for the incident and Brig. Gen. Paul Rock, commanding general of Marine Corps installations in the Pacific, told the Okinawa Prefecture government that all CH-53Es belonging to the Futenma base have been grounded for security checks.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has reacted strongly to the incident, the latest in a series of incidents involving US military planes based in Futenma.
“The safety of children must come first. It is unforgivable that he falls in the middle of the playground,” he told reporters during his visit to the site. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the incident “caused concern” among residents of the island prefecture.
The window, apparently made of acrylic, along with its metal frame fell on the elementary school yard at around 10:10 a.m. The nearest student was only about 5 meters away, according to a group of members of the school. municipal assembly that went to the site.
Shattered pieces of glass were scattered around the site, as parents, worried about their children, rushed to school. The schoolyard students at the time were in second and fourth grades.
The local Defense Ministry office told Okinawa Deputy Governor Moritake Tomikawa that the window fell off the left side of the helicopter’s cockpit. The CH-53E is a large transport helicopter, which can carry up to 55 people in addition to seven crew members.
Tomikawa also met with Rock and called for emergency checks of all US military planes deployed in the prefecture and their flights suspended until checks are completed.
The incident occurred less than a week after a small cylindrical object was found on the roof of a kindergarten in Ginowan, local government and school officials believe he fell from a US military plane.
The US Marine Corps admitted the object was part of a CH-53 helicopter but denied that it fell during the flight.
Given the differing opinions, the nursery school has received dozens of phone calls and emails criticizing it for “lying” or “trying to make up a story.”
Kindergarten principal Takehiro Kamiya said on Tuesday: “I don’t want the prefectural and central governments to accept without question what the US military is saying. I want people on the continent to see this as their problem.
The Japanese and US governments reached an agreement in 1996 on the return of land used for the Futenma base after public anger over the 1995 rape of a local girl by three US servicemen. But progress has been slow, with many residents opposed to the base’s current plan to relocate to Okinawa.
As part of this plan, the Futenma base is expected to be moved from a densely populated area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago.
Okinawans are frustrated with the noise, crime and accidents at American bases. Safety concerns were recently rekindled by a series of accidents involving a US Marines Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and another CH-53E helicopter belonging to the Futenma base.
On the same day a year ago, an Osprey crashed off the coast of Nago in Okinawa, with two of the five crew members injured.
In 2004, a CH-53D helicopter from the Futenma base crashed into a university in Ginowan, injuring three crew members.