Investigative records in last year’s deaths of three Robins Air Force Base airmen in Japan detail how a sightseeing tour turned tragic in a matter of minutes.
The three were swept out to sea while exploring the coast Oct. 5, and the investigation indicates there was ample warning of the danger before the situation became deadly.
The documents, obtained by The Telegraph through an open records request, also confirm that two of the victims placed themselves in danger in order to save the first airman swept away.
The conclusions of the investigation, its recommendations and the names of those involved were blacked out in the documents. But the records include a detailed summary of findings and a written statement from an airman who was swept away by the waves but made it back to safety.
The records also include cellphone video that shows the scene before the incident, but not the incident itself.
The airmen were all from the 461st Air Control Wing and 116th Air Control Wing, which together operate the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System at Robins. They were at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa on a temporary assignment and were off duty when the waves hit.
Senior Master Sgt. James Swartz, 51, Master Sgt. Daniel Paschal, 34, and Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff, 27, all drowned. Their bodies were recovered after a massive search.
The report, which puts the estimated cost of the incident at $26 million, provided a narrative of events that began with a group of six airmen visiting waterfalls in Japan.
While driving along the coast, they saw large waves from a typhoon 210 miles offshore. Deciding to stop and photograph the waves, they walked down a trail to an old bridge.
The report identifies them in the narrative only by number -- persons 1-6. However, the report gives the rank for each one the victims, so the identities of those killed are clear in the narrative because each had a different rank. Those killed are persons 1-3, and the rest remain unidentified by name. The airman swept out who made it back is identified as person 4, or P4.
The narrative states that P4, a master sergeant, walked to the edge of the water on an old bridge and was chased back several times by waves as high as 40 feet.
“P3 and P6 stayed back and videoed P4 walking to the edge of the road and then running back in fear of the waves,” the report stated. “P6 stated ‘Good luck, don’t die.’”
Several minutes later, P4 and Swartz noticed the waves had died down and walked closer to the water while the others stayed back. That’s when a large wave knocked the two down and they proceeded to leave. But before they could get away, both were swept away by a large wave.
“The wave encompassed my entire line of vision,” P4 said in a written account. “It looked like a wall moving toward us.”
P4 was caught under a section of concrete for a few seconds before he escaped, but he couldn’t find Swartz.
Swartz’s family members said they were told he put himself at risk to save another airman swept over, but the report indicates he was the first one lost.
Ignoring a member of the party who told them not to, Paschal and Schoenhoff ran down to the danger area looking for Swartz. An airman farther back called Paschal on his cellphone and told him to come back and wait for rescue personnel. Paschal responded “Yes sir, we are leaving now.” A minute later the airman called Paschal again and got no answer. Paschal and Schoenhoff were never heard from again.
At 6 p.m., about two hours later, Swartz’s body was spotted by a local coast guard helicopter 390 yards from the incident location and recovered. Darkness suspended the search for the others.
Two days later, a fisherman found Schoenhoff’s body on the beach. And the day after that, a rescue helicopter found Paschal’s body.
The report found that upon arrival at the base, all members of the group had been briefed on the area dangers, including sea conditions and typhoons. They were supposed to have watched a water safety video, but that wasn’t shown due to technical difficulties. Three of them, however, had seen the video on a previous deployment to the base.
In response to a request for interviews about the report, the two J-STARS commanders sent emailed statements.
“All Air Force incidents that incur loss of life are investigated by an appointed safety board; a very methodical and comprehensive process, helping to prevent future mishaps,” said Col. Kevin Clotfelter, commander of the 116th Air Control Wing. “The men we lost served their country with distinction and honor to the end. They were active in their community and most of all, they loved their families. We truly miss them.”
Col. Henry Cyr, commander of the 461st Air Control Wing, said the tragedy has taken a “personal toll” on the unit.
“As friends and loved ones continue to mourn their loss, Team J-STARS and the Air Force seek to find what we can learn from this incident to ensure other Airmen do not suffer the same tragic outcome,” Cyr said. ”To date, we have worked to implement improved safety and deployed training to accomplish this. We will continue to assess how we can further improve awareness and improve our culture of safe operations around the world.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.