A Ground Self-Defense Force attack helicopter crashed Monday in a residential area in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, setting at least one home on fire and possibly killing the chopper’s two crew members, officials said.
“A Self-Defense Forces helicopter crash-landed in a residential area. A house has caught fire,” local official Katsuhide Tanaka said.
Investigative sources said all four residents of the home that caught fire were confirmed safe. One of the two crew members was confirmed dead in the immediate aftermath of the crash, NHK reported.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said there were two people in the helicopter when it crashed.
The AH-64 Apache helicopter, stationed at the GSDF’s Metabaru Camp, crashed around 4:45 p.m. The accident site was near a kindergarten, but the pupils are all safe, according to its operator.
NHK showed a thick plume of gray smoke rising between the rooftops of area houses.
Firefighters could be seen running through the streets with firehoses as people were evacuated from the area.
In Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera confirmed that a helicopter had gone down in Saga.
“The helicopter crashed and burst into flames,” he told reporters. “Images show that the helicopter appears to have crashed in a residential area and we are checking that.
“We’re still confirming the scale of casualties,” he said, adding that the helicopter is believed to have nose-dived when flying on an easterly heading.
The Defense Ministry said the helicopter was trying to land after the crew reported irregularities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued an order halting flights of AH-64 helicopters until all safety issues are resolved.
Local firefighters said 14 fire engines and three ambulances responded to the site.
A resident who lives near the accident site said two or three loud bangs were heard. Black smoke was also seen billowing from the area.
A city-run elementary school is also located nearby and its principal said the helicopter appeared to have crashed “in a residential area several hundred meters away.”
The crash raised memories of a 2016 incident in which an Air Self-Defense Force jet with six people aboard went missing in mountainous terrain. Four bodies were later recovered.
The SDF has been banned from waging any kind of combat beyond defense of the nation since the U.S.-imposed Constitution of 1947 that followed the carnage of World War II.
Personnel have been deployed overseas in peacekeeping missions, some of which have proved controversial at home.
And while the SDF is strictly limited in terms of the scope of its military activity, Japan nonetheless boasts an impressive array of weaponry and highly trained personnel.