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 at the time of the crash. No names have been released.
Another person remained missing, but a search through the debris of the two destroyed homes was suspended Monday evening and expected to resume in the morning, police spokeswoman Monica Munoz 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. The pilot was returning from training on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the San Diego coast when the plane went down, she said.
Putnam had no details on a possible cause. Investigators will review information from a flight data recorder, and there was no indication the pilot was using alcohol or drugs, she said.
Authorities said smoke rising from the wreckage was toxic and evacuated about 20 homes. Residents of all but six were allowed back Monday evening; those six homes were uninhabitable, Munoz said.
Jets frequently streak over the neighborhood, two miles from the base, but residents said the imperiled aircraft was flying extremely low.
Jordan Houston was looking out his back window three blocks from the crash when the plane passed by.
A parachute ejected from the craft, followed by a loud explosion and a mushroom-shaped cloud.
Houston, 25, said a truck exploded after the driver backed over flaming debris and then jumped from the cab yelling, “I just filled up my gas tank.”
The Marine Corps said the pilot was part of the Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101, based at Miramar.