Navy jet crash: All safe after F/A-18 slams into apartment complex

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

All three people listed Friday night as missing from the apartment complex where a U.S. Navy jet fighter crashed have been located and are safe, emergency officials said Saturday morning.

So far, no fatalities have been reported from the crash, in which a Navy F/A-18D Hornet on a training mission slammed into the Mayfair Mews apartment complex. Six people, including one of the two airmen aboard the plane, were treated at a local hospital and released Friday. One aviator was still hospitalized Saturday morning, according to officials at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, but the Navy described his injuries as minor and said he was doing well.

The aviators, described by the Navy as a student pilot in the front seat and an experienced instructor in the rear, parachuted to safety. One landed in the apartment complex and was aided by residents.

PHOTOS: Navy jet crashes into apartments in Virginia Beach

After searching all 40-some apartments damaged or destroyed in the crash, emergency officials said they had accounted for all residents of the complex. They were still trying to determine whether anyone visiting the apartments at the time of the crash was missing.

“I’m happy to report that we don’t have any reports of missing people at this time,” Virginia Beach Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Tim Riley said at the scene early Saturday morning. “We are transitioning from a search-and-rescue to an investigation.”

Navy officials were also investigating the cause of the crash. On Friday, Capt. Mark Weisgerber of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command said the two-seat Hornet had experienced a “catastrophic mechanical malfunction.”

The charred wreckage of the plane was clearly visible from the street Saturday morning after police took down much of the cordon they had set up Friday. Just behind the remaining ribbons of yellow police tape, the fuselage and twin-finned tail section of the Hornet lay on a grassy courtyard next to a blackened tree and badly burned brick apartment buildings.

Residents described a red fireball and plumes of black smoke after the plane slammed down. It had jettisoned most of its fuel, but the faint scent of jet fuel was still present Saturday morning.

Just 30 feet away from the wreckage, other apartments appeared untouched. On several balconies, chairs, tables and plants were arranged as if nothing untoward had happened. The complex is populated mostly by elderly residents. Many residents of an adjacent apartment complex, Birdneck Village, work at military bases in the Tidewater area.

The tree-lined neighborhood is about two miles from Naval Air Station Oceana, where the Hornet had taken off just after noon Friday. It crashed moments later.

At least 63 people from both apartment complexes were forced from their homes Friday. Some spent the night with friends or relatives. Others stayed at nearly Birdneck Elementary School, where the Red Cross had set up a shelter.

Early Saturday morning, John Santoni, 46, a marine mechanic who works at one of the Navy bases in the area, pressed against the yellow police tape, trying to get photographs of the wreckage. His girlfriend, Sarah Uphold, a schoolteacher, lives in the complex but had left town Thursday night on spring break, he said.

“She’d kill me if I didn’t tell her what happened to her apartment,’” Santoni said as he tried, and failed, to persuade a police officer to take his camera and try for a closer shot.

Uphold’s apartment appeared undamaged, Santoni said. It was rebuilt last year after a fire destroyed the unit and the apartment above it, he said. The Hornet slammed down less than 100 feet away.

“It’s amazing,” Santoni said, staring at the wreckage. “It’s like the plane was just picked up and planted right there between all those buildings.”

PHOTOS: Navy jet crashes into apartments in Virginia Beach