TSU, Mie Pref. – Six people died and two others were injured Saturday when a helicopter and a light airplane collided in midair and crashed onto a residential district of the city of Kuwana, Mie Prefecture, police said.
The chopper, an Aerospatiale AS332, and the airplane, a Cessna 172, both belonged to Nakanihon Air Service Co., based in the town of Toyoyama in Aichi Prefecture, and collided at around 11:30 a.m.
Local police confirmed Saturday afternoon that the six fatalities were the two people aboard the helicopter and four in the plane.
Three houses and an apartment building caught fire after the crash.
The aircraft charter company named the two people aboard the helicopter as Takashi Sakate, 54, and Minoru Morita, 39, while Shizuaki Aoki, 51, Yukio Omori, 52, were on board the light plane.
However, police said that while Aoki and Omori were the only people listed on the aircraft’s flight plan, they believe that Takeshi Kato, 45, and Hiroyuki Matsuda, 15, were also aboard the Cessna.
Investigators confirmed the identities of the six dead men in the evening.
The two aircraft were both on training flights, the company said. Investigators said it appeared that Morita and Omori were at the controls of the two aircraft, while Sakate and Aoki were training them.
Both the Mie Prefectural Police and the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry have set up special teams to investigate the accident, the ministry’s six-member team arriving at Kuwana later in the day.
According to authorities, the helicopter took off from Nagoya Airport at 11:02 a.m., while the light plane took off at around 11:20 a.m.
The two craft were at an altitude of about 200 meters above Kuwana, with the helicopter on a southeast heading and the Cessna plane proceeding northwest, apparently unaware of each other.
Witnesses and company officials said the pilot of the plane appeared to notice the chopper at the last instant and tried to execute a turn to port, but the main wing caught the helicopter’s rotor.
The plane struck the roof of a house before hitting the ground, the impact hurling one of the occupants clear of the machine, according to witnesses. Three other bodies were found grouped around the wreckage of the plane, while two bodies were found where the chopper went down.
Nakanihon Air Service President Takehiko Kaito apologized for the disaster during a news conference at the firm’s office at Nagoya Airport late in the afternoon.
“There are those who have lost their precious homes and we have caused much concern for those living in the area. The company will deal with the families of the victims with all sincerity,” he said.
Debris from the collision was showered across several hundred square meters, with some aircraft parts falling into neighboring Gifu Prefecture, according to police.
The accident took place near major retailer Mycal Co.’s Kuwana store and the Kuwana Interchange on the Tomeihan expressway. A Mycal employee said a column of black smoke dozens of meters high could be seen rising from the area of the collision.
Local residents said they heard three large explosions, but at first did not realize what had happened.
A 53-year-old male employee of a nearby factory said a two-story house was gutted by a fire caused by falling debris, while a rotor blade from the helicopter was in flames in a nearby road. At a spot roughly 100 meters north of his factory, aircraft parts had landed on a car, crushing it, he added.
“I could see what appeared to be the leg of one of the people on board the aircraft,” he added.
A 19-year-old youth who was cleaning a clothing shop at the time of the accident said he heard a large boom and then felt small pieces of debris falling from the sky.
“I was surprised to later hear of the accident,” he said, adding that he could have been injured if he had been standing at a different spot.
Saturday’s crash was the first major accident involving a helicopter in Japan since a Ground Self-Defense Force chopper and a small airplane collided in flight above the city of Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, in August 1997.
Three people died in that incident, but no one on the ground was hurt as the two craft crashed into a wooded area and a park.
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