Three buildings in the Mayfair Mews apartment complex were destroyed and two more had significant damage, Virginia Beach fire department spokesman Tim Riley told WVEC-TV.
Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach EMS division chief, said that witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down, and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.
“By doing so, he mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire,” Nedelka said. “With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been.”
The fire had been put out, Nedelka said, and crews were going through the buildings to search for anyone who might have been inside at the time of the crash.
The jet took off from nearby Oceana Naval Air Station and crashed into the complex on Birdneck Road in Virginia Beach shortly after noon Eastern time. The plane, a two-seater belonging to a training squadron for student pilots, appeared to encounter difficulties shortly after takeoff, the Navy said.
Witness George Pilkington told CNN that he saw the plane flying low, with its nose up and apparently emptying jet fuel, just before it plowed into the apartment building. Flames shot 60 to 80 feet into the air after the crash, he said. “There was a couple of large explosions after it crashed.”
Firetrucks and ambulances raced to the scene. Firefighters struggled to put out the flames.
Another witness, Zack Zapatero, told CNN that he saw a few people stumbling out of one of the apartment buildings and making their way to ambulances.
“Lots of people were just stumbling out coughing” because of the thick smoke, he said.
Witnesses reported that one of the crew members who ejected landed in the wreckage and was rescued by people who rushed to his aid.
“I’m so sorry I crashed into your building,” rescuer Pat Kavanaugh quoted the airman as saying. Kavanaugh told CNN he found the airman still strapped into his ejection seat and parachute. He said he and neighbors picked up the seat and carried the pilot away from the flames.
Another witness, Keith Gutkowski, said the other ejection seat came down on a fence about 50 feet from his house, which is less than 75 yards from the apartment complex.
Thomas Thames, a doctor at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, told WAVY-TV that six people were brought to the hospital, including the two pilots. Two people were treated for smoke inhalation, one fainted at the scene and the other person was a police officer hurt at the scene, he said.
The F/A-18 Hornet was apparently trying to head toward the Atlantic Ocean to ditch safely but went down about a mile short of the beach, Navy sources told CNN.
“We are taking all possible steps at the state level to provide immediate resources and assistance to those impacted by the crash,” Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Friday afternoon in a statement. He said he spoke to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and informed him that “all Commonwealth resources are available to him as the community responds to this breaking situation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.