NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — A U.S. military helicopter crashed Friday on a university campus in Okinawa, injuring three crew members, local police officials said.
The CH-53 helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University, in the city of Ginowan, according to Okinawa Prefectural Police. The university is located in a densely populated neighborhood bordering the south side of U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, from where the chopper took off.
Local police said that of the three marines on board, one was seriously injured and the other two slightly hurt. Witnesses were quoted as saying the chopper appeared to have lost control, hit a school building and crashed into a parking lot.
They said there were no civilian casualties on the ground, but some cars and homes were damaged by debris.
Observers said the accident could have an impact on the long-stalled relocation of the contentious air base.
Washington and Tokyo agreed in 1996 to return the Futenma base to Japan after a relocation site in Okinawa is provided. The planned relocation facility, a military-civil airport to be built off the northern Okinawa city of Nago, has yet to be built due to local opposition.
After inspecting the crash site, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha told reporters, “I will demand the prefectural and city governments be involved in the investigation of the accident, and not entrust it to the U.S. side.”
Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, head of the U.S. forces in Okinawa, visited the Okinawa Prefectural Government later Friday to apologize to Vice Gov. Hirotaka Makino.
Blackman told reporters in the evening that the helicopter was on a routine training mission. He attributed the accident to mechanical failure but added that details were still unknown.
Police said the helicopter took off from the Futenma base and went down around 2:15 p.m.
Debris was scattered in the neighborhood. One piece was found at a gas station some 300 meters from the crash site, and another part, nearly 2 meters long that is believed to be part of the tail, was found about 400 meters from the crash site.
Okinawa International University issued a statement in the name of President Tomoaki Toguchi criticizing the accident.
“Thankfully no one was injured because we were on summer holiday, but it could have been a major disaster,” he said, adding that he would demand a swift investigation into the cause of the accident.
In Tokyo, government officials called the accident a serious issue.
The accident “is something that should not have happened,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters. “It could have resulted in a catastrophe.”
The Defense Facilities Administration Agency, which is in charge of the administration and maintenance of the U.S. bases in Japan, said it would dispatch its deputy director general, Michio Ishii, to Ginowan to investigate.
The agency also said it lodged a protest with the headquarters of the U.S. Forces Japan and requested information on the crash and better safety measures.