A US Navy fighter jet has crashed into an apartment building in the northeastern US city of Virginia Beach, military officials have said, injuring at least six people.
The F/A-18 plane’s two crew members successfully ejected from the aircraft before it hit the ground, and were treated for non-life-threatening injuries at a local hospital, emergency response officials said on Friday.
Dr. Thomas Thames of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital told local media that six people were brought to the hospital, including the two pilots.
Two people were treated for smoke inhalation, one fainted at the scene and the other person was a police officer hurt at the scene, he said.
Three buildings were destroyed by the crash, and two more suffered significant damage, Tim Riley, a fire department spokesperson, said.
Local emergency services chief Bruce Nedelka said fires at the buildings had been put out and rescue crews were searching through the wreckage for anyone who may have been inside when the crash occurred. Twenty units had been cleared, but firefighters were searching through the final six with extreme caution, as they had suffered extensive damage.
Firefighters had initially rushed to the scene of the crash, in the Hampton Roads area of the city, to battle a blaze that had erupted in the heavily-built-up urban area after the jet crashed into the two-storey building.
“There were flames coming out of its engine at the back, which I just thought was afterburn or whatever… but the plane got lower and lower. I saw one pilot eject,” Jon Swain, who witnessed the crash, said.
Colby Smith, a local resident, said that his house started shaking and then the electricity was cut, as he saw a fire erupt outside his window. After running outside, he saw billowing black smoke and came upon one of the pilots as he ran to a friend’s house.
“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,” Smith told local media.
“The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house.'”
US Navy statement
A US Navy statement said the plane that crashed was part of a Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, based nearby at Naval Air Station Oceana.
“Initial reports indicate that at approximately 12:05 pm, the jet crashed just after takeoff at a location just off of the base,” it said. “Both aircrew safely ejected from the aircraft.”
Witnesses said they saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it hit the ground, a manoeuvre that likely prevented what could have been a massive fireball.
VFA 106 trains Navy and Marine Corps replacement pilots and weapon systems officers to support fleet commitments.
Oceana is a complex of more than 10km of runways, manned by more than 14,600 military personnel. It is home to 19 squadrons of fighter aircraft.
Virginia Beach is on the Atlantic coast, located about 320km south of Washington.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, said that the location of the base has been a regular source of tension for residents for some years.
“This community is one that is in constant conflict over this navy base that’s there … it’s the only [major] jet base on the east coast, so pretty much any Navy planes [on this side of the US] fly out of Virginia Beach,” she said.
“This area has sort of grown up around this navy base, and this has been the constant fear.
“Any day that you’re there, all hours, you will hear and see these fighter jets coming in and leaving for exercises over the Atlantic.
“It is loud, it is noisy, there has always been a fear that this would in fact happen.”