VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Emergency crews searched the charred remains of a Virginia Beach apartment complex Friday after a fighter jet crashed into it just after takeoff in what Navy officials called a “catastrophic mechanical malfunction.”
Two Navy pilots – a student and an instructor from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana – ejected just before the jet careened into the apartment complex around noon, demolishing sections of some buildings and engulfing others in flames.
Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed, but hours later, no fatalities had been reported.
Seven people, including both pilots, were taken to a hospital. All except one of the pilots were released by late afternoon.
Capt. Tim Riley of the Virginia Beach Fire Department said three residents remained unaccounted for late Friday.
“We don’t know if we have working cell numbers, if they’ve traveled,” Riley said. “We don’t know if people are staying with other people.”
He said crews had done an exhaustive search of about 95 percent of the apartment complex and would continue searching throughout the night.
The two-seat F-18 Hornet had dumped loads of fuel before crashing, though it wasn’t clear whether that was intentional or because of a malfunction, said Capt. Mark Weisgerber with U.S. Fleet Forces Command. The jet went down less than 10 miles from Oceana.
Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach EMS division chief, said witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.
The plane’s not having as much fuel on board “mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire,” Nedelka said. “With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been.”
The crash happened in the Hampton Roads area, which has a large concentration of military bases. Naval Air Station Oceana, where the jet fighter that crashed was assigned, is in Virginia Beach. Both the pilots were from Virginia Beach, Weisgerber said.
Weisgerber said he did not know how many times the student pilot had been in the air, but that the instructor was “extremely experienced.”
Residents of the complex described a confusing scene and an apologetic pilot.
Colby Smith said his house started shaking and the power went out, as he saw a red and orange blaze outside his window. He ran outside and saw billowing black smoke, then came upon the pilot as he ran to a friend’s home.
“I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood,” Smith told WVEC-TV.
“The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house.’ ”
Smith said he and another man helped the pilot onto the street.
Patrick Kavanaugh, who lives in the complex where the jet crashed, opened his sliding glass door after hearing a loud explosion and saw one of the jet’s pilots on the ground with blood on his face. Kavanaugh said the pilot, whom he described as a “young boy,” was very upset and apologetic.
“The poor guy was in shock. I checked for broken bones and opened wounds,” said Kavanaugh, who spent 23 years in the rescue squad and retired in 1996.
Despite having suffered several heart attacks, Kavanaugh said his old rescue skills kicked in as he dragged the pilot away from the fire before several other explosions occurred.
As authorities closed roads in the neighborhood, traffic backed up on side streets and on nearby Interstate 264, bringing drivers to a virtual standstill early Friday afternoon.
Edna Lukens, who works at the apartment complex across the street from the crash, said she saw three apartment buildings on fire.
“We heard this loud noise and we looked out the window and there was smoke all in the sky. Then the flames started going up in the sky, and then the apartment building just started burning and the police was called and everybody came out,” Lukens said.
The same model of fighter jet, an F/A-18D, crashed in San Diego neighborhood in December 2008 after a training exercise. That crash killed four members of one family and destroyed two homes.
The Marine Corps said the jet suffered a mechanical failure, but a series of bad decisions led the pilot – a student – to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base after his engine failed. A federal judge ordered the government to pay the family nearly $18 million in restitution.
Most flights from Naval Air Station Oceana are training flights, Weisgerber said.