Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Navy jet slams into apartment complex; both pilots eject

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 apartment complex, demolishing sections of some buildings and engulfing others in flames. Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed in the crash, but hours later no fatalities had been reported.

Seven people, including both pilots, were taken to a hospital. All except one of the pilots were released by late afternoon.

Virginia Beach 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 two-seat F/A-18 Hornet had dumped most of its 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. Dumping the fuel minimized the fire from the crash.

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 plane 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."

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, as he ran to a friend's home, he came upon the pilot.

"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.'"

Smith said he and another man helped the pilot onto the street.

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