VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A U.S. Navy admiral said Saturday that the fiery crash of a fighter jet into apartment buildings in the military community of Virginia Beach matches his definition of a miracle.
No one was killed and everyone was accounted for one day after the accident.
“I don’t speak for anybody’s religious beliefs, but the mayor and I both agreed that if you want to define a miracle, what happened here yesterday meets that definition for me,” Adm. John Harvey, the four-star head of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, told reporters.
He said the Navy is investigating the crash, but noted it will take weeks to determine exactly what happened.
“We will not rush to judgment. We will get everything down. We will examine it carefully,” he said. “We’ll fix whatever went wrong.”
A special victims fund is available to assist those whose homes or possessions were damaged or destroyed. More than two dozen people spent the night at a temporary shelter.
At least seven people, including two pilots who ejected safely, were injured in the crash. All were released from the hospital as of Saturday, said Harvey, and are in “good shape.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell thanked all those who acted in an hour of need.
“This amazing news follows the countless acts of bravery and selflessness that we witnessed yesterday,” he said in a statement.
He said the crash response highlighted the character of the Navy, safety officials and the people of Virginia.
“We saw neighbors rushing to the assistance of neighbors, the Navy pilots waiting until the very last second to eject, citizens pulling the pilots to safety and treating them, and a successful and efficient coordinated response from first responders, the city and others,” McDonnell said. “It was the very best of Virginia on display.”
The fighter jet experienced a “catastrophic mechanical malfunction” during takeoff Friday, raining jet fuel over Virginia Beach before plunging to the ground, damaging five apartment buildings, according to residents and Navy officials.
The jet carried a student pilot in the front seat and an experienced instructor behind him, and the leakage of jet fuel was “one of the indications that there was a mechanical malfunction,” Navy Capt. Mark Weisgerber told reporters.
The two-seat F/A-18 jet landed eerily upright in flames in a courtyard surrounded by the five apartment buildings that were suddenly set afire.
Once the five buildings were doused with water and the courtyard was coated with a foam, rescue crews began a grim, detailed search through the charred hulks to look for any residents injured or killed, a fire official said.
Resident Pat Kavanaugh told CNN affiliate WTKR that he and others found one of the pilots still strapped to his seat with cuts to his face. Kavanaugh said he was on his couch when he heard a loud boom and was startled to see a parachute hanging from the building.
In shock, the pilot apologized for his jet crashing into the apartment complex, and residents pulled him safely away from the crash zone, said Kavanaugh, a retired rescue worker.
The two pilots, a Virginia Beach police officer, an EMS volunteer and three other people were treated for injuries at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.
The jet, which was not carrying live ordnance, was part of a training squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana, the Navy and Federal Aviation Administration said. It crashed 2.2 miles from the runway, a senior Defense Department official told CNN.
Eyewitnesses and residents described their community — so accustomed to military planes taking off near their homes — suddenly taking a surreal turn for the worse when the jet fell out of the sky and spewed its fuel, a possible maneuver to minimize the inevitable fire upon crashing.
One ejection seat shell ripped through an oak tree and crashed into a condo fence, and the other seat shell landed next door, suggesting that the two Navy pilots ejected at a low altitude, said resident Keith Gutkowski.
Colby Smith told CNN affiliate WVEX that he was in his bathroom when he felt his “whole house shaking.” Then he looked out his bedroom window and “saw nothing but red, just red and orange flashing. And just a crackling noise. I was like, ‘What is that?’ ” he said.
Smith said he ran outside, saw a friend and eventually spotted a pilot who was “laying there” and bleeding. He said he and several others then picked up the pilot and carried him to safety.
Credit: CNN. CNN’s Michael Martinez, Barbara Starr, Greg Botelho, Mike Ahlers and Sandra Endo contributed to this report.