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Base safety: No water related deaths for 492 days

Date Posted: 2005-08-20

CAMP FOSTER — Drowning statistics since January 2000 and recent incidents of experienced surfers being swept out to sea suggest that a strong water safety campaign started in April of last year and sea condition warnings are effectively deterring water fatalities, base safety officials said.

Today the number of consecutive days without an ocean fatality involving a Status Of Forces Agreement member reached 492.

Shawn M. Curtis, the Marine Corps Base Camp Butler occupational safety and health specialist, said he believes the command’s efforts are at least partially responsible for the streak.

From January 2000 until April 15, 2004, 17 SOFA members perished in Okinawa waters, according to Curtis.

The last SOFA drowning incident on Okinawa occurred April 15, 2004 when two service members drowned in strong currents off of Zampamisaki, also known as Bolo Point, one of the most dangerous sites on the island, accord ing to Curtis.

For the past 16 months, base safety officials have saturated the community with water safety information.

Incoming SOFA personnel watch a 15-minute water safety video at the mandatory newcomers’ brief every Monday and Wednesday.

The Armed Forces Network has been a strong ally in the campaign, filling television and radio airwaves with valuable water safety information, Curtis said.

“AFN is our biggest supporter,” he said. “People are getting tired of seeing the same commercials, but that means they’re working.”

Three new commercials are currently in production, Curtis added.

One of the best resources available to the community is the sea condition (SC) warning system, Curtis said.

The system, which breaks down into four tiers: no condition, caution, warning and red, is a means of informing and advising Okinawa-based SOFA personnel on heightened or hazardous sea conditions.

“No condition,” according to Curtis, is the most ideal and safest condition in which to enter the water.

Under SC-caution, only experienced personnel who can accurately assess local conditions should enter the water, according to Kadena Air Base’s Web site,

Under SC-warning, only those who have extensive experience in water activity should enter the water if they believe themselves capable of handling the conditions.

When the waters are classified as SC-red, SOFA members should not enter the water for any reason.

In the 17 water fatalities of SOFA status personnel from January 2000 to April 15, 2005, 80 percent occurred during heightened sea conditions, according to Curtis.

Two recent incidents in which experienced surfers were swept out to sea during heightened conditions reinforce the effectiveness of the system, Curtis said.

Aug. 5, an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crew from Kadena Air Base’s 33rd and 31st Rescue Squadrons rescued the 19-year-old son of an Okinawa Marine after the teen was swept out to sea while surfing off of Kanesku Beach Park, near Kadena Marina.

July 16, a Japanese Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued a sailor stationed on Okinawa after he was swept out to sea while surfing off of Ikei Island.

The sailor said he and a friend were surfing together when they were swept out. The sailor’s partner, a surfer with 26 years of experience, barely managed to swim back to shore after about 30 minutes. The sailor wasn’t as fortunate. He spent three hours at sea before being rescued.

“I didn’t think he made it,” the sailor said, talking about his surfing partner. “I couldn’t see him anywhere, and I feared the worst.”

The sailor’s morbid thoughts quickly turned to the sobering reality of his own situation.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘Not at 26 years old; that’s too young. I’m going to make it back in.’”

When the winds pick up on Ikei Island, the currents can be treacherous, Curtis said. The area has been designated one of the seven most dangerous sites around the island. Large signs at the seven locations posted by base safety personnel warn beachgoers of the dangers.

The incident at Ikei could have been avoided if the sailor and his friend had not made some significant mistakes, according to Curtis.

The Ikei site was unfamiliar to the sailor and his partner, and the two went out alone and entered the water despite the fact that no one else was surfing.

“If the locals aren’t out or there’s nobody else in the water, there’s probably a good reason why,” Curtis said. “It’s probably dangerous conditions.”

Sea conditions vary from one side of Okinawa to the other. The East China Sea side of the island may have different conditions from the Pacific Ocean side.

Because of this broad classification, the SC system has met with some criticism and controversy. Many water enthusiasts complain that the system is not precise enough, but the system is in place for good reason, according to the sailor.

“I’ll definitely be checking the sea conditions when I go out in the future,” he said.

Current sea conditions can be found on the Kadena Air Base Web site at www.kadena.af.mil under “weather.”

In the event of an ocean emergency on Okinawa, anyone can dial 118 from any phone to initiate an immediate emergency response, Curtis said.

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