Navy jet fighter crashes into Va. Beach complex

that was struck by an F/A-18D Hornet on Friday. ROSS TAYLOR / Virginian-Pilot
that was struck by an F/A-18D Hornet on Friday. ROSS TAYLOR / Virginian-Pilot (Firefighters work at a Virginia Beach apartment complex)

The two pilots ejected, and no fatalities were reported. Apartments went up in flames.

Posted: April 07, 2012

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 complex, demolishing sections of some buildings and engulfing others in flames. About 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed in the crash, but hours later 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.

Virginia Beach Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley 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 searched about 95 percent of the apartment complex and would continue throughout the night.

"We consider ourselves very fortunate," he said.

The two-seat F-18 Hornet had dumped loads of fuel before crashing, though it wasn't clear if that was because of a malfunction or an intentional maneuver by the pilots, 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 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.

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 lying on the ground with his face full of blood," Smith told WVEC-TV.

"The pilot said, 'I'm sorry for destroying your house.' "

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