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D.C. Guard Jet Fires, Hitting N.J. School

By D'Vera Cohn and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 5, 2004; Page B01

A D.C. Air National Guard fighter jet based at Andrews Air Force Base accidentally fired about two dozen rounds of ammunition during a nighttime training mission, piercing the roof of a school in southern New Jersey, authorities said yesterday. No one was injured in the incident, which is under military investigation.

Six of the projectiles, at least two inches long and a half-inch in diameter, were found inside Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School yesterday morning. Five were found in the parking lot, said Lt. John O'Brien of the Little Egg Harbor Township police.

Little Egg Harbor Township police returned to the school yesterday after employees found projectiles on the roof and inside the building. (Tony Kurdzuk -- The Star-ledger)

Police were called to the school after a custodian heard noises about 9:20 p.m. Wednesday that she likened to people running across the roof, said Allan Bossard, principal of the 970-student school for students in grades 3 to 6. Police found no intruders.

Officers returned yesterday morning after school employees found projectiles inside the building. There was damage to the roof, ceiling tiles and carpeting.

Lt. Col. Roberta Niedt, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said that the gun aboard the jet accidentally discharged. She said investigators were trying to determine whether it was caused by a mechanical malfunction or an error by the pilot of the single-seat F-16 fighter jet.

Col. Jeff Johnson of the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard said the unit routinely trains at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 2,400-acre area about 3.5 miles from the school in Little Egg Harbor. The plane was flying at about 7,000 feet and was within the range when the rounds were fired, officials said.

"The key is, it was inadvertent," O'Brien said. "It was not directed at the school."

Residents of Little Egg Harbor, a community of 25,000 about 30 miles north of Atlantic City, have long been accustomed to roaring jets flying practice missions. The firing range has been used by the National Guard since the early 1960s.

"We are used to operations out there" at the range, O'Brien said. "It's pretty commonplace to have these aircraft out there. More recently, they have run night sorties, and [they] notify the police department they are out there."

He said no residents called police to report the incident Wednesday night, probably because the Guard flights are so common. He said people had called police after hearing of the incident, but he added, "I don't sense any panic."

O'Brien and Niedt said the incident was the first of its kind in Little Egg Harbor, a town in the Pine Barrens that was named because turtles would lay eggs on its beaches. The town is a bedroom community for Atlantic City and has residents who commute to Philadelphia and New York, officials said.

"The range has been there for 40 years, and there's never been an accident like this," Niedt said.

Johnson said the military took the incident "extremely seriously. The safety of our people in the surrounding community is of foremost concern."

Practice missions at the range have been suspended until the investigation is completed, authorities said.

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