(VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.) — A fighter jet that crashed into an apartment building in Virginia’s most populous city destroyed several homes but seems to have miraculously claimed no lives.
Fire officials said today they are “95 percent certain we have everybody accounted for.”
Seconds after takeoff, the student pilot and instructor were forced to shut down one engine on their F/A-18 Hornet after noticing a fuel leak.
The crew began dumping fuel by pumping it over the side to keep the plane light enough to fly, but were forced to eject moments before the plane slammed into an apartment building at 12:05 p.m. Friday.
The crew followed the appropriate procedures, shutting down the engine with the leak, a military source told ABC News military and aviation consultant Stephen Ganyard.
“The fact that they had to eject from the airplane tells me the aircraft was clearly uncontrollable and there was nothing more they could do to move that aircraft from populated areas,” Ganyard said.
The two pilots and five people on the ground were taken to the hospital. All but one of the pilots have been released.
The crash started a fire at the Mayfair Mews apartment complex, destroying or damaging some 50 units.
“The plane went straight up with no sound,” John, an eyewitness, told WVEC. “And [then] he went right into a dive and I thought maybe it was a training exercise. And then, boom. I could hear it hit and I seen black smoke and instantly smelled jet fuel. … I’ve never seen nothing like it before.”
Eyewitness Colby Smith said he helped one of the pilots after the crash.
“I saw the pilot laying there with a bloodied-up face. He was pouring blood,” Smith told WVEC. “I looked out my bedroom window and I saw nothing but red, just red and orange, flashing, and just a crackling noise. I said, ‘What is that?’ And then I heard a lot of ‘pop, pop, pop.’”
Smith and several other bystanders rushed to carry the pilot to safety.
“We picked up the pilot, who was really heavy,” Smith said. “He must have weighed at least 200 pounds, with all his equipment. Me and three other guys picked him up and we carried him to the street. I got so much blood on me.”
One witness described the pilot as being very apologetic.
“The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house,’ and I just bent down and I touched him and I was like ‘it’s okay, it really – are you okay?’ and he was like ‘I think I am.’”
Former Navy SEAL Patrick McAleenan told Navy Times he was a block away from the crash and believed the pilots ejected at the last second in an attempt to avoid hitting a school.
The apartment complex is about three miles from the landing strip at Oceana Naval Station and, according to Google Maps, there are several schools within a two-mile radius of the crash site, including one elementary school a half mile away.
“We have planned for this,” Virginia Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Tim Riley told WVEC. “We’ve done two mishap drills in the past two years and, unfortunately, today it has come to fruition.”
The aircraft was part of the Strike Fighter Squadron 106, which is a training squadron for student pilots. The Navy said the student pilot was in the front seat and an experienced instructor was in the back.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell offered additional resources to the Virginia Beach community.
“I have spoken to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms several times and informed him that all commonwealth resources are available to him as the community responds to this breaking situation,” he said in a statement. “We are monitoring events carefully as they unfold and State Police resources are now on the scene. Our fervent prayer is that no one was injured or killed in this accident.”
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