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Virginia Beach Navy jet crash: 'My whole backyard was on fire'

Emergency responders continue to search for people who may be trapped, but so far there have been no fatalities. NBC’s Thanh Truong reports.

About noon on Friday, residents in Virginia Beach, Virginia, witnessed a fighter jet streaking past — nothing unusual for this oceanside city surrounded by military bases. But this Navy F/A-18D was too low, trailing smoke and flames — and witnesses watched as the two pilots ejected from the aircraft, which careened into an apartment complex, exploding into flames.

"My whole backyard was on fire," said one resident.

It was type of accident that some residents in this city have worried about, amid the familiar rumble of military aircraft. But four hours after the crash, only a handful of injuries and no fatalities had been reported.

The result might have been far worse.


Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach EMS division chief, said that witnesses saw fuel spilling from the jet before it went down and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.

"With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been," Nedelka told The Associated Press.

It was unclear whether the pilots dumped the fuel or whether the "catastrophic mechanical malfunction" that a Navy spokesman said the jet suffered might have contributed.

The area, about 400 miles south of Washington on the Atlantic coast, has a large concentration of military bases, including Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. The F/A-18D was assigned to Naval Air Station Oceana, about four miles southwest of the Mayfair Mews Apartments, scene of the crash.

Bill Tiernan / AP

Emergency personnel gather at the scene of a jet crash Friday in Virginia Beach, Va. Two Navy pilots ejected from the fighter jet which then careened into an apartment complex and set buildings on fire.

John Swain, who was exiting an interstate highway nearby, came upon the scene just seconds after the crash and said it appeared that the jet had hit a two-story apartment complex dead center.

"The plane came right over us and was clearly in difficulty," he told msnbc cable TV. "There were flames coming off the back … The plane got lower and lower and just as I turned … it crashed."

'My whole backyard was on fire'
Ernie Gonzalez, who is retired military, was sitting on the front porch of his daughter-in-law’s house behind Naval Station the base where the jet had taken off. He said a few other jets had departed before the one that crashed.

"He was flying real low like he didn’t have any power," Gonzalez told msnbc.com by telephone.

"He was smoking really bad. Bad smoke was coming out of the engine. It kind of backfired a couple times. I heard two pops … then 15 seconds later I heard the explosion."

Gonzalez said the other jets then started circling around the crash site.

The Navy has launched an internal investigation to find out more about why a fighter jet crashed into an apartment complex in Virginia. As of Friday there were no reported fatalities. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Amy Miller told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper that she was outside the cleaners where she works when she saw a plane coming down with fire on its wing.

"I saw two parachutes eject. I saw them open up and then head toward the ground to the right of the jet," she told the newspaper.

About two seconds later it crashed, she said.

Joan Coleman told the Daily Press newspaper that she was on the phone in her Mayfair Mews apartment when it happened.

"I saw this explosion," Coleman told the paper. "My whole backyard was on fire."

Coleman said she told the person she was talking to on the phone, "Oh my God, there is a jet, it just landed in my backyard. It's exploded."

Neighbors rushed to the scene, and some jumped into action to help. One woman told NBC reporter Thanh Truong that she and others pulled four people from one building just before it collapsed.

Pilot: 'Sorry for destroying your house'
Residents said that one of the pilots had to be cut free of his parachute gear after it became tangled in a burning building. Neighbors ran to the scene with a knife to free him so he could be moved to safety, the city editor of The Virginian-Pilot told msnbc cable TV.

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 tangled pilot as he ran to a friend's home, The Associated Press reported.

"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 said.

"The pilot said, 'I'm sorry for destroying your house,'" Smith told the AP.

As fire crews worked to douse the flames, first responders searched for victims. Crews had searched dozens of units and were approaching the remaining few very carefully because of extreme structural damage, according to Virginia Beach Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley. He said there was a slim chance anyone could have survived in those final units.

Up to that point, however, only eight people were injured, he said, including three who refused treatment. None, including the pilots, had serious injuries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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