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‘Boom, boom, boom!’ Navy jet crash stuns Virginia neighborhood

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times –

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Robert Leggett is accustomed to the deep roar of Navy jet fighter planes flying over his rooftop in this military town. But at lunchtime Friday, the F/A-18D Hornet that flew screaming above his apartment window didn’t sound right.

“It sounded way too low,” Leggett, 27, recalled. He should know. He’s a Navy enlisted man who repairs Navy jet fighters.

Spilling fuel, the Hornet slammed into an apartment complex 100 feet from where Leggett stood in his bedroom Friday afternoon. Remarkably, there were no initial reports of deaths after about 40 units in the complex were destroyed or damaged by flames.

“The whole rooftop was in flames,” Leggett said, describing plumes of black smoke that rose high into the clear blue spring sky. “I saw six or eight people on their hands and knees, crawling out of their apartments.”

Seven people were hospitalized, including the plane’s two aviators, who had parachuted to safety. Six were treated and released, leaving only one of the aviators still hospitalized, hospital officials said. Their injuries were considered minor, said Marc Davis, a Virginia Beach spokesman.

“It’s hard to believe nobody was killed,” said Tishawn Coins, 17, who was sitting at his computer in his apartment when the plane went past his window. “I thought it was going to come right through the window. I mean, it was that close.”

By nightfall, three people were unaccounted for, Virginia Beach Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley told reporters. All but six of the most damaged two-story apartments had been searched with no fatalities reported, Riley said.

“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 plane had just taken off on a training mission from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana about 12:30 p.m. when it suffered a “catastrophic mechanical malfunction,” according to the Navy. The two-seat Hornet dumped fuel just before it crashed, but it was not clear whether the dumping was intentional or a result of the malfunction, Capt. Mark Weisgerber of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command said at a news conference.

Dumping the fuel “mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire,” said Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach Emergency Medical Services division chief. “With all that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been.”

Police and firefighters arrived within minutes, and the blaze was under control in about an hour, said Alie Thompson, 64, who was watching TV in an apartment across the street when she heard the plane smash into the complex.

“There was this big boom and then black smoke, and then three more big booms — just boom, boom, boom!” Thompson said. “I could feel those booms go right through my body. My whole apartment was shaking.”

The Oceana base is about two miles from the Birdneck Village apartments, where the plane crashed. The complex is in a direct line for Navy plane approaches from the base runways, Leggett said.

“If you could somehow get way up in the air, you could look over there and see the runway from here,” Leggett said late Friday, staring at the smoldering ruins of a section of brick apartments behind police tape across the street from his apartment.

One aviator is an “extremely experienced” instructor, and the other is a student pilot, Navy officials said. One aviator was found at the complex, still connected to his parachute, disoriented and with a bloodied face, according to one apartment resident.

“I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood,” Colby Smith told TV station WVEC. “The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house.’ ”

Another resident, Patrick Kavanaugh, said he also stumbled across the aviator, and checked him for injuries as the Navy flier apologized for the crash. “The poor guy was in shock,” Kavanaugh told The Associated Press. “I checked for broken bones and open wounds.”

At least 63 people were evacuated from the apartment complex, said Davis, the city spokesman. Among them was Natasha Coins, 33, Tishawn Coins’ sister and the mother of seven children. Natasha Coins stood in the cool evening air Friday, watching firefighters walk past charred apartments 100 feet from her apartment, which she said was not damaged.

Police told her it may be a day or more before she can return home. “They didn’t provide any place for us to go in the meantime,” Coins said as her children played in the grass across the street from the stricken row of apartment units.

Because it was midday on a weekday, many residents were away from home. Many residents work for the military at one of armed forces bases in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads area, home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

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