By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
A Navy fighter jet slammed into a Virginia Beach apartment complex shortly after noon Friday, igniting a blaze that heavily damaged five apartment buildings and hospitalized six people, including both aviators.
Two unidentified crewmembers managed to eject from the F/A-18D Hornet with what were described as minor, non-life threatening injuries, according to Navy spokesman Mike Maus.
As of early Friday afternoon, four other people were being treated for smoke inhalation, says Bruce Nedelka, Virginia Beach EMS division chief. No fatalities were reported, but firefighters had not examined all of the buildings by 3:45 p.m. ET.
One of the downed aviators was assisted by bystanders. "He was in shock" but seemed OK, Pat Kavanaugh, a retired local fire department rescue squad member, told CNN.
"When (my wife) walked outside of our condo, she heard the jet and just saw it almost fall out of the sky," witness Keith Gutkowski told CNN. "It was almost at an angle pointing toward us."
He said the ejection seat "hit one of the oak trees and took a few branches off of that and then it slammed into our fence at the condo."
The jet was part of Strike Fighter Squadron 106, also known as the "Gladiators," which is stationed at Virginia's Naval Air Station Oceana. The squadron's mission is to train Navy and Marine Corps replacement pilots under a nine-month program.
The F/A-18D is a twin engine, all-weather fighter jet used for air-to-air combat and ground attacks. Friday's crash was at least the third involving the aircraft this year. An F/A-18C crashed on Feb. 26 in Bahrain, just two days after an F/A-18F crashed during a routine training mission in Fallon, Nev.
A cause of Friday's crash has not been determined. The Navy is investigating the matter.
Tim Riley, a spokesman for the Virginia Beach Fire Department, said there is "significant" damage to five apartment buildings. As of 1:45 ET, fire officials had not assessed potential injuries to residents or determined how many were at home at the time of the crash in the apartment complex, known as Mayfair Mews.
Former Navy SEAL Patrick McAleenan was a block away when the plane crashed and said the sound was unmistakable and that the walls of his home shook.
"I knew it was an aircraft. They fly over all the time. I knew it was an aircraft," he said in a phone interview.
He said the pilots ejected at the last possible second in an apparent effort to make sure that the plane would not crash into a nearby school.
McAleenan said the aviators appeared to be safe, considering the circumstances.
"One of them, literally, his parachute hung on a balcony. The people on the ground were dragging him to safety," he said.
The F/A-18's tail section was intact, lying in the apartment building's courtyard, he said.
"There's fire crews. There are lines. Everybody is helping everybody. The lines are charged and ready and it looks like they are looking to see if there are any casualties or survivors and assessing the damage," McAleenan said.
The crash site is on Birdneck Road near Interstate 264, about a quarter-mile off of the coast, said a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Officials from the department and Virginia state police are directing traffic away from the scene of the crash. Parts of I-264 have been closed.
The Navy had considered shuttering Oceana during a 2005 round of military base closures, in part because of encroachment from nearby neighborhoods. However, Virginia's Senators at the time, Republicans John Warner and George Allen, were joined by then Gov. Mark Warner and Adm. Michael Mullen, then the Chief of Naval Operations, in testifying before Congress to support its continued operation.
Contributing: Yamiche Alcindor, Marisol Bello, Gregg Zoroya and Tom Vanden Brook in McLean, Va.; Joshua Stewart, the Navy Times