By MC1 Chris Fahey, NMCB 3
IS2 Collin Austria, NMCB 3, climbs a steep ridge near White Beach Naval Facility. Austria was among 13 Seabees who volunteered to help remove a boulder (shown to the left of Austria) dangerously perched above one of the primary access roads connecting the Heshikiya District to White Beach. Photo by MC1 Chris Fahey
For the past year, commuters traveling along the primary access road that connects the Heshikiya community to the White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa, Japan, did so at their own peril. Perched roughly 150 meters above the road on the mountainous face of an exposed ridge, a boulder the size of a compact car peered down the cliff, threatening to fall at any moment.
Composed of different types of dirt, stone and clay, and held in place by a small natural dirt wedge about the size of dustpan, the boulder’s size and consistency could easily crush through the average Japanese vehicle and kill anyone traveling on foot.
BU3 Caleb Esparza (top) uses a Hilti to break off sections of a large boulder while IS2 Collin Austria, both from NMCB 3, acts as a safety spotter as they work atop a steep ridge near White Beach Naval Facility. Photo by EO3 Aaron Wilson
“I’ve been working on trying to get the boulder removed for a year and a half,” said Shinya through an interpreter. “I want to thank the Seabees for helping solve this problem. Their motivation and spirit assured me they could get the job done.
Led by CEC Chance Agnew, 13 Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 ventured to the ridge above White Beach, Jan. 14-29, to rid Heshikiya of the problem. Agnew’s plan was simple in theory – use equipment in the battalion’s existing inventory to climb the ridge, lock workers safely into place, then use a jackhammer and several other heavy tools to break the boulder apart, piece-by-piece.
Agnew combed NMCB 3 looking for members who had both advanced rock climbing experience and gear so they could safely execute his plan. LS2 Eric Johnson and LS2 Travis Pommer, both assigned to NMCB 3’s Supply Department, answered Agnew’s call. Having safely completed more than 200 climbs between them, the two-man team was able to expertly use the 200-ft. climbing ropes, carabineers and harnesses found in the battalion’s inventory to allow Agnew’s team of Seabees to remove the cliffside boulder both safely and within the allotted time.
From left, CEC Chance Agnew, IS2 Collin Austria and BU3 Caleb Esparza, NMCB 3, prepare to climb a steep ridge near White Beach Naval Facility. Led by Agnew, a team of 13 Seabees volunteered to help remove a boulder dangerously perched above one of the primary access roads connecting the Heshikiya District to White Beach. After safely clearing the boulder, the access road was deemed safe and reopened for the first time in more than year. Photo by MC1 Chris Fahey
Prior to actually putting hands on the boulder, Agnew and his team spent days clearing paths leading through the triple-canopy jungle that surrounded the ridge. This helped them gain safe access to the job site. These trails allowed the team to transport a generator, jackhammer, fuel and other tools, including a wire litter in case someone was injured. Once access was established and gear staged, Pommer and Johnson created a solid anchor point using a redundant locking system. The system locked their ropes and climbing harnesses onto multiple catch points to ensure the only item sent tumbling down the cliff was the boulder.
“That was the biggest challenge,” said Agnew. “Getting access through this thick jungle and ensuring everyone was taking their time, paying attention and looking out for each other. We had good radio communication, so we could each pass along whatever was needed in case of an emergency, and a corpsman and ambulance on site from White Beach not more than 300 meters from where we worked.”
Once their climbing system was secure and anchors set, Agnew and his team donned climbing helmets, eye protection and harnesses to get onto the boulder. They used a large jackhammer to drive steel rebar stakes into the heart of the rocky beast. These stakes allowed large sections of the boulder to shed safely from the mass and roll easily down the slope.
From left, CEC Chance Agnew and BU3 Caleb Esparza from NMCB 3, stage a generator used to power hand-operated tools atop a ridge near White Beach Naval Facility. Photo by MC1 Chris Fahey
“Once we were able to get safely locked in position, our top crew did a great job sending us tools, food, staying hydrated and making sure we could stay in our work rhythm,” said Agnew. “We trusted our climbing experts to keep us safe and they trusted us to get the work done. The teamwork was perfect.”
As the team watched the last piece of the boulder collapse into the dense jungle, the crew – spread out across the job site – cheered and high-fived, allowing the nearby populace to hear the Seabees’ joy having eliminated a threat to the community and making a true impact on the district’s safety.
“It’s great knowing that our Seabees can safely execute such a complex job,” said Agnew. “I’m really proud of my team and impressed with the way everyone came together – White Beach, the Japanese district and city officials, CFAO and all the other resources that provided equipment and materials for us to get this project done safely. It was great to be a part of something and make a difference.”