JEMS.com Editor's Note: The body of a fourth person -- a child -- has been found in a San Diego home that was destroyed Monday when a Marine Corps fighter jet crashed into it, the San Diego County medical examiner's office said Tuesday. Click here to read the full story.
SAN DIEGO -- A fighter jet returning to a Marine base after a training exercise crashed in flames in a San Diego neighborhood Monday, killing three people on the ground, leaving one missing and destroying two homes.
The pilot of the F/A-18D Hornet jet ejected safely just before the crash around noon at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Explosions rocked a neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes, sending flames and plumes of smoke skyward.
"The house shook, the ground shook. It was like I was frozen in my place," said Steve Krasner, who lives a few blocks from the crash. "It was bigger than any earthquake I ever felt."
Three people were killed in a house where two children, a mother and a grandmother were believed to be inside at the time of the crash, but fire officials did not immediately know who died. Another person remained missing, and officials said the search was suspended until Tuesday morning.
"We just know that four people were inside, and three of them have been accounted for," Fire Department spokesman Maurice Luque said.
The pilot, who ended up hanging by his parachute from a tree in a canyon beneath the neighborhood, was in stable condition at a naval hospital in San Diego, said Miramar spokeswoman 1st Lt. Katheryn Putnam. He had been returning from training on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the San Diego coast when the plane went down.
Firefighters hosed down rubble more than three hours after the crash as white smoke continued to belch from the wreckage. Authorities said the smoke was toxic and about 20 homes were evacuated. By Monday night only six homes remained evacuated because they were uninhabitable, said San Diego police spokeswoman Monica Munoz.
There was little sign of the plane in the smoking ruins, but a piece of cockpit could be seen on the roof of one home, and a charred jet engine sat on a street near a parked camper. A parachute was visible in the canyon below a row of houses.
The neighborhood in the University City section of San Diego smelled like a combination of jet fuel and a brush fire and looked like a scene out of a disaster movie. Streets were choked with ambulances, fire trucks and police cars. A Marine Corps bomb disposal truck was there, although police assured residents there was no ordnance aboard the jet.
Neighbors described a scene of chaos after the jet tore into the houses and flames erupted.
"It was pandemonium," said Paulette Glauser, 49, who lived six houses away. "Neighbors were running down toward us in a panic, of course. One girl collapsed in my front yard."
She went to get water and a blanket and when she returned paramedics were already treating the girl.
Jets frequently streak over the neighborhood two miles from the base, but residents said the imperiled aircraft was flying extremely low.
There was no initial cause for the jet crash, though the Navy recently inspected hundreds of F/A-18 Hornets built by Boeing Co. after discovering "fatigue cracks" on more than a dozen aircraft. The Navy announced last month it had grounded 10 of the jets and placed flight restrictions on another 20 until repairs could be made.
The inspectors checked the Hornets for cracks in a hinge that connects the aileron flaps that help stabilize the jet in flight to the wing.
A retired Navy aviator, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Diamond, said he drove to the scene after seeing the plane go down and spoke with the pilot about what caused the crash.