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, but fire officials did not immediately know who died. Another person remained missing.
'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. 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.
Firefighters hosed down rubble more than three hours after the crash as white smoke continued to rise from it. Authorities said the smoke was toxic, and about 20 homes were evacuated.
There was little sign of the plane in the smoking ruins, but a piece of cockpit sat on the roof of one home, and a charred jet engine lay 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 of jet fuel and smoke. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars choked the streets. A Marine Corps bomb disposal truck was there, although police assured residents there was no ordnance aboard the jet.
Neighbors described 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.'
Jets frequently streak over the neighborhood, two miles from the base, but residents said the imperiled aircraft was flying extremely low.