Fire chief: Divine intervention, no fatalities after fiery jet crash
Posted April 7, 2012
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Fire officials say they have accounted for everyone who lived at a Virginia apartment complex where a Navy fighter jet crashed.
Capt. Tim Riley is the battalion chief and spokesman for the Virginia Beach fire department. He said Saturday morning that the last three people at the apartment complex had been accounted for, and that there appeared to be no fatalities.
The fighter jet was being piloted by a student and his trainer Friday when the plane malfunctioned over Virginia's most populated city. The men ejected moments before the jet crashed into the apartment complex.
Somehow, both pilots and everyone on the ground survived. The pilots and five on the ground were hurt, but all but one aviator were out of the hospital hours later.
"We consider ourselves very fortunate," Riley said. "It is a holy, holiday weekend and divine intervention played a role here."
More than 60 people lost their homes, however, among them Finis Craft.
Craft first heard a loud explosion. It was followed by a lesser sound. When he looked outside, Craft said, "There was a pilot facedown in the courtyard of my patio."
Craft saw buildings burning and collapsing all around him. "There was the tail of a plane burning and the heat coming to my door," he said.
Craft said the other pilot in the two-seater plane went through the roof of a neighbor's home.
The airmen from Naval Air Station Oceana, less than 10 miles away, were able to safely escape the aircraft, which weighs up to 50,000 pounds fully fueled and armed, before it careened into the apartment complex, demolishing sections of some buildings and engulfing others in flames. Some 40 apartment units were damaged or destroyed. Military authorities are investigating what happened.
The two-seat F18 Hornet 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.
Virginia Beach EMS division chief Bruce Nedelka said witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down, and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.
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 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."
Patrick Kavanaugh, who lives in the complex where the jet crashed, opened up his sliding glass door after hearing a loud explosion and saw one of the jet's pilots on the ground with blood on his face. Kavanaugh said the pilot, whom he described as a "young boy," was very upset and apologetic.
"The poor guy was in shock. I checked for broken bones and opened wounds," said Kavanaugh, who spent 23 years in the rescue squad and retired in 1996.
Despite having suffered several heart attacks and open-heart surgery, Kavanaugh said his old rescue skills kicked in as he dragged the pilot around the corner and away from the fire before several other explosions occurred.
Those who took shelter at a nearby school tended by the Red Cross wondered what they'd find on their return. Riley said fire investigators would likely be on the scene for about a week.
Navy officials said they were still looking Saturday afternoon for the plane's black box. They planned to gather all the parts of the plane from the crash site and reassemble it in a hangar in an attempt to figure out what went wrong.