Search on Hold, Two Airmen Remain Missing at Sea After Typhoon

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan -- High seas and darkness have led Air Force officials to suspend the search for two airmen who were washed out to sea while taking photos of Typhoon Phanfone along Okinawa's rocky northwestern coastline.

Another airman who was part of their group was pronounced dead earlier Monday.

Despite a high-wave warning, six airmen were walking along the coastline Sunday as Typhoon Phanfone churned north toward the Japanese mainland, officials said. Four of the members of the group were swept away around 3:45 p.m., according to a spokesman for the Japanese Coast Guard.

Only one made it back to shore alive, while another was found floating unconscious a few hours later and was pronounced dead at Hokubu Hospital in Nago.

“The waves were so high and massive,” firefighter Kakuei Oshiro, who had been at the scene Sunday in Kunigami Village, told Stars and Stripes.

Early rescue efforts were hampered by rough seas, Air Force officials said. The Japanese Coast Guard and HH-60s from Kadena Air Base called off their search at sunset Monday, with the intention of resuming the search at sunrise on Tuesday.

No identities were released pending notification of families.

"Team Kadena's thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the airmen involved in this tragic incident," Col. Thomas Torkelson, 18th Wing vice commander, was quoted as saying in an Air Force news release. "This event touches every member of the Air Force family -- the search for our missing brothers-in-arms will continue."

The typhoon drenched and battered the Tokyo area, home to several U.S. bases, which closed down Sunday and Monday until the fast-moving storm had swept by. The soccer field at the Ikego housing area near Yokosuka Naval Base was among several places that flooded, and some trains servicing the base were halted.

Workers at Yokota Air Base, northwest of Tokyo, faced cleanup of downed tree limbs and other debris.

Phanfone inflicted little damage on Okinawa, home to about 30,000 U.S. troops, officials said. Winds were relatively subdued at 35-40 knots, and the storm's closest approach was 260 nautical miles.

The typhoon passed through Sasebo on Sunday night on its way to the Kanto Plain, causing some discomfort for residents due to the heavy winds, but there was no significant damage.

While the sun was peeking through the clouds by early afternoon, the respite may be brief. Weather forecasters were predicting that Typhoon Vongfong, which pounded Rota, just north of Guam, on Sunday, would turn north in a couple of days and head in the general direction of Okinawa and mainland Japan by the weekend.

-- Stars and Stripes staffer Dave Ornauer contributed to this report.

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