A fighter jet that malfunctioned just after takeoff hurtled into a Virginia Beach apartment complex on Friday in a spectacular crash that sent flames and black smoke billowing from the rubble.
The two pilots managed to eject just before impact, suffering minor injuries along with five others on the ground. Several residents described hearing a loud explosion and looking out their windows to see the red and orange blaze. In the confusion that followed, two men helped one of the bloodied pilots from the two-seat F18 Hornet move to safety.
“Oh, my God, I heard three really loud explosions, then the black smoke went up high in the sky,” said 71-year-old Felissa Ezell, who lives in a townhouse near the crash site.
By evening, emergency crews were searching through the charred remains of the complex, where some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. No fatalities had been reported.
Seven people, including the pilots from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana, were taken to a hospital. All except one of the pilots were released by late afternoon.
Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley said more than two dozen residents remained unaccounted for, although all but the six most damaged apartments had been searched.
“What I’m praying for, what I’m thinking about now is that we don’t find any more victims,” Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms told reporters.
The plane had dumped loads of fuel before crashing, though it wasn’t clear if that was because of a malfunction or an intentional manoeuvre by the pilots, said Capt. Mark Weisgerber with U.S. Fleet Forces Command. The jet went down less than 10 miles (16 kilometres) 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 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, including Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. Naval Air Station Oceana, where the F/A-18D that crashed was assigned, is located in Virginia Beach. Both the pilots were from Virginia Beach, Weisgerber said.
The pilots included a student and an instructor. Weisgerber said he did not know how many times the student pilot had been in the air, but that the instructor was “extremely experienced.”
Dozens of police cars, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles filled the densely populated neighborhood where the plane crashed. Yellow fire hoses snaked through side streets as fire crews poured water on the charred rooftops of brick apartment houses. By late afternoon, the fire had been put out.
Residents of the apartment complex described a confusing scene and an apologetic pilot.
Colby Smith said his house started shaking and then the power went out, as he saw a red and orange blaze outside his window. He ran outside, where he saw billowing black smoke and 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.