Photo/IllutrationA screenshot of a video posted on Twitter of the helicopter after it crash-landed in Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 11. (From the Internet)

  • Photo/Illustraion

HIGASHI, Okinawa Prefecture--Okinawa reacted with shock, anger and dismay at news of yet another incident involving a U.S. military aircraft in the subtropical southernmost prefecture.

The latest accident came less than a year after an Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft made an emergency offshore landing off the coast of Nago in the prefecture.

“This time, it was on the land,” said Higashi resident Fumiko Takaesu. “I dread the thought that someday one will crash into people.”

The CH-53 helicopter was on routine training when it caught fire and was forced to land in a field in the Takae district of Higashi village the late afternoon of Oct. 11. Flames quickly engulfed the chopper, sending up a plume of black smoke from the burning fuel.

Higashi lies on the northeast coast of Okinawa's main island.

An area of several hundred meters around the wreckage was quickly cordoned off.

The owner of the grazing land, Akira Nishime, 64, was working in a nearby plot when the incident occurred.

“I didn't hear any sound, but black smoke was billowing," he said.

When Nishime scrambled to the site, he came across seven U.S. military personnel who had been in the helicopter and asked if they needed an ambulance.

They declined the offer, saying they had already contacted the base, and told him to keep his distance to stay safe.

Takaesu, who lives in a small community about 2 kilometers north of the site, said her heart "skipped a beat" when she heard of the crash-landing. She noted that a strong wind was blowing at the time.

Village Mayor Seikyu Iju, and other officials, were allowed into the sealed off area Oct. 12 to view the wreckage.

“I was shocked,” said Iju. “I will be requesting that they (U.S. military authorities) suspend all training exercises involving these aircraft until the cause of the accident is determined.”

Last December, an Osprey aircraft crashed in the sea off Nago, about 20 kilometers away, and broke into pieces. In 2004, a CH-53 crashed in the campus of Okinawa International University in Ginowan. The U.S. military later admitted that some helicopter parts used radioactive materials.

According to Higashi village authorities, they were informed by a senior official of the Okinawa prefectural police that the aircraft will be removed if environmental tests sound the all-clear.

Kumiko Nakamine, 67, the head of the Takae district, joined Iju at the site of the crash-landing.

“I just shudder to think what if it had been a fatal accident involving the public,” she said.

Nakamine said that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called Oct. 11 to offer his apologies for the incident.

She said she urged him to “never again allow such an incident to happen.”

The site of the emergency landing is close to the U.S. military's Northern Training Area, where six new helipads had been completed by late last year as part of a deal to return of more than half of its forested area to Japanese sovereignty.

A large number of helicopters and Ospreys use them on a daily basis.

A woman from Naha in her 30s, who joined a sit-in to protest the construction of the helipads and has taken part in other local protests, said: “This is why I have been saying it is dangerous. I call on them to stop operating these aircraft immediately.”

(Shohei Okada and Keiko Yasuda contributed to this article.)