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Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Group saves records of fatal U.S. fighter jet crash


YOKOHAMA — A group of people are preserving the records of a deadly U.S. fighter jet crash in a Yokohama neighborhood 35 years ago, an effort taking on added meaning amid the controversy over the U.S. Marines' deployment of the Osprey, which has a history of safety issues, in Okinawa.

News photo
Remembering: Masahiro Saito shows drawings, photographs and broken pieces of a U.S. military aircraft that crashed in 1977 in Yokohama. KYODO

On Sept. 27, 1977, people rushed to the accident site after hearing a loud crash and a rumbling of the Earth. Some took pictures while others collected fragments of the plane, an F-4 Phantom jet configured for reconnaissance, which had taken off from the U.S. Navy's Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture. Most of the wreckage was taken away by the U.S. military.

The damage on the ground was massive, and the two men onboard managed to eject to safety.

Two boys aged 1 and 3 who lived nearby eventually died from injuries caused by the crash, while seven others were hurt, some seriously. Among them was the boys' mother, who died in 1982 at age 31 even though she had initially recovered after lingering near death due to severe burns.

In the face of the tragedy, those who owned items related to the accident, such as photos and broken pieces of the aircraft, as well as newspaper and magazine clippings, teamed up with those who saw a need to preserve them to form the group in 1986.

Masahiro Saito, who visited the accident site the day after it happened, was among them. Now a 71-year-old former company employee in Yokohama, he leads the group's activities.

"We have continued collecting the documents, and their number, currently at around 800, is increasing as people have donated what they had," Saito said. "We have returned the favor by trying to make them as widely available as possible."

Some of the photos show a big crater made by the airplane and burned houses at the accident site, as well as a boy swathed in bandages on a hospital bed.

The collection includes pictures drawn by elementary school students who were taking part in an athletic meet that day and witnessed the aircraft falling as flames trailed behind it.

Also in the collection is the diary of the late mother.

On Oct. 26, 1978, more than a year after the accident, she wrote: "I cannot talk with anybody as I cannot let out my voice (due to her injuries), but I definitely want to continue living to attain happiness and to appeal that such a terrible accident will never happen" again.

To prevent her from suffering a sudden shock while fighting her injuries, the death of her two boys was kept from her until Jan. 29, 1979. On that day, she only noted in her diary: "I was informed of the saddest thing to me."

Saito said the preservation group feels a strong sense of mission. "We want to share these mementoes with as many people as possible so the memories of the accident will never fade away."

Since its launch, the group has organized exhibitions across Japan that have drawn hundreds of people while encouraging Kanagawa junior high and high school students to compose poems and create and perform recitation plays based on the late mother's diary.

Saito said the group's activities are particularly poignant these days, as the U.S. Marine Corps prepares to deploy to Okinawa the controversial Osprey, a tilt-rotor transport plane with a checkered safety history that includes crashes in Morocco and Florida earlier this year.

Investigations have concluded the accidents were caused by human error and the central government has declared the Osprey safe to fly in Japanese skies.

But Saito asked: "Can we say Ospreys are safe, as human error, not mechanical failures, resulted in their troubles? Can we secure the Osprey's safety merely by changing pilots?

"Thirty-five years have passed since the U.S. military plane crash in Yokohama, but the Osprey issue shows the government has not learned the stance of protecting its people," he added. "It has applied and will continue applying stopgap measures if something goes wrong."

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