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Navy jet crash aftermath: Virginia Beach mayor says it's a 'miracle' no one died

NBC's Thanh Truong reports.

Updated at 2:39 p.m. ET: Officials said Saturday they were astonished that apparently no one was killed and only a few people hurt when a U.S. Navy fighter jet malfunctioned and crashed in a fireball into a Virginia Beach, Va., apartment complex.

All residents in the complex have been accounted for, rescue officials said.

“We are so blessed and believe a miracle has occurred here,” Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said at an afternoon press conference with Navy officials.

“The mayor and I both agreed that if you wanted to define a miracle, this defined it for me,” added Navy Adm. John Harvey Jr., head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command based in Norfolk.

Zooming along at 170 mph in a fighter jet carrying thousands of pounds of volatile fuel, two Navy pilots faced nothing but bad choices Friday when their aircraft malfunctioned over Virginia's most populated city.

"Catastrophic engine system failure right after takeoff, which is always the most critical phase of flying, leaves very, very few options," aviation safety expert and decorated pilot J.F. Joseph told The Associated Press. "You literally run out of altitude, air speed and ideas all at the same time," he said.

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.

The men ejected from their F/A-18D jet moments before it slammed into the Mayfair Mews apartment complex courtyard. The pilots and five on the ground were hurt, but all had been released from the hospital.

Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. Officials scoured the blackened shells for bodies but found none.

Virginia Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Tim Riley said that could change if, for instance, authorities did not know about a guest that had been staying in an apartment.

Still, officials said they were surprised the accident had not claimed any lives.

“We consider ourselves very fortunate," Riley told The Associated Press earlier Saturday.

Harvey thanked citizens who rushed to the crash site and pulled the pilots to safety, dragged fire hoses into place and helped evacuate residents from the apartments.

Frank Thorp V / NBC News

People whose property suffered damage in the crash an F/A-18 crash in Virginia Beach speak with Navy lawyers about their claims.

“It was a pretty amazing display in Virginia Beach of what citizenship really means,” he said.

Riley said officials are now attending to the needs of the 60 or so residents whose apartment units were destroyed, including finding long-term housing for them

The burned aircraft was still lodged in the apartment complex Saturday morning. Crews were working on a plan to deal with the clean-up, which could take days, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

Harvey said an investigation into what went wrong will likely take weeks. That will include interviewing the two pilots who ejected and listening to the flight recorders onboard the plane.

Hours after the crash Friday, Nay officials said the F-18 fighter jet crashed suffered a "catastrophic mechanical malfunction” shortly after takeoff.

The airmen were from Naval Air Station Oceana, less than 10 miles away.

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

The aircraft weighs up to 50,000 pounds fully fueled and armed. The two-seat jet 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 plane not having as much fuel on board "mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire," Virginia Beach EMS division chief Bruce Nedelka said. With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been."

Bill Tiernan / AP

Emergency personal gather at the scene of a jet crash Friday, April 6, 2012 in Virginia Beach, Va.

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 pilots were from Virginia Beach, Weisgerber said.

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

Another witness, 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, saw billowing black smoke and then came upon a 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 lying 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.

 NBC News, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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