WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy F/A-18D fighter crashed soon after take-off into an apartment complex in Virginia on Friday, sending fireballs into the sky, heavily damaging half-a-dozen buildings and injuring nine people.
All the injuries, including those to the F/A-18 crew, were minor, officials said, but the search of the Mayfair Mews apartment complex was not complete. Both crew members ejected from the aircraft before it crashed into the buildings in Virginia Beach, and one pilot was rescued while still strapped into his ejection seat.
Initial indications were the F/A-18D "suffered a catastrophic mechanical malfunction" during a training flight, Navy Captain Mark Weisgerber said.
Thick black clouds of smoke billowed into the air as fire reduced the apartment buildings to a blackened shell. The Mayfair Mews complex was less than two miles (3.2 km) from Naval Air Station Oceana, where the F-18D was based.
"I feel very blessed that we didn't find anyone (dead) in the first two buildings," said Mayor William Sessoms on CNN. "I don't know what to expect in the other buildings until they get into them."
A volunteer rescuer, Pat Kavanaugh, told CNN he found one of the pilots in the wreckage, still strapped to his ejection seat with a parachute. Kavanaugh and neighbors picked up the seat and carried the pilot away from the flames.
Kavanaugh said the pilot "apologized very much for hitting our complex."
Zack Zapatero, who witnessed the crash, told CNN there were "just large fireballs coming up" into the sky from the crash.
Amy Miller said she saw "flames underneath the right wing" just before the crash. "I heard the initial impact. Then you heard a boom right after that."
The distinctive, twin-finned tail section of the F/A-18D landed in the courtyard of the complex of two-story brick buildings.
Dozens of firefighters and emergency workers converged on the scene, smothering the apartment complex with foam.
The plane was part of a training squadron at Oceana, the largest Navy air facility on the East Coast, that prepares Navy and Marine aviators and weapons officers for duty.
Some 250 aircraft are stationed at Oceana with its seven miles (11 km) of runway, 20,000 military and civilian workers and 19 fighter/attack squadrons. The Navy says Oceana is the largest employer in Virginia Beach.
"It is a vital part of our city," Sessoms said. "That is going to continue."
Admiral John Harvey Jr, commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces, praised the "heroic response" of those at the complex and emergency personnel who took care of the air crew and others at the scene.
There are 37 tactical squadrons of F-18s operating from air stations worldwide and from 10 aircraft carriers. The Navy's precision air team, the Blue Angels, flies the F-18.
Virginia Beach, with 440,000 residents, is on the Atlantic Coast about 200 miles (320 km) south of Washington, D.C. Much of its economy relies on tourists who come to enjoy its miles of beaches. The city is home to a complex of military bases, including Oceana, and the home of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet is next door at Norfolk, Virginia.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Sandra Maler, Frances Kerry and Jackie Frank