Please download Flash from the Adobe download website.
5:49am UK, Saturday April 07, 2012
Three people are still unaccounted for after an American military fighter jet crashed into a block of flats in Virginia and exploded into flames.
The US Navy F-18 plane suffered what the Pentagon is describing as a “catastrophic mechanical malfunction” during a training flight before smashing into an apartment complex in the Virginia Beach area.
As many as five low-rise buildings were on fire and flames and thick, black smoke were sent billowing into the sky.
The scene of destruction after the flames had been put out
No deaths have yet been reported, but three residents of the Mayfair Mews complex for the elderly remain unaccounted for.
Tim Riley, Virginia Beach Fire and Rescue Battalion chief, said: “We have physically been in every structure, and we have 95% completed the search and rescue.
“We don’t know if we have working cell numbers [for the people unaccounted for], if they’ve travelled.
“We don’t know if people are staying with other people.”
Rescue crews searched for any injured residents in five buildings, several of which have collapsed, Mr Riley added.
Witnesses reported seeing fuel pouring from the plane shortly after take-off from the nearby Naval Air Station Oceana, but it is unclear whether it was a leak or a deliberate move by the crew.
If a deliberate dump, Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach emergency services chief, has said the manoeuvre is likely to have prevented what could have been a massive fireball.
Clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky after the crash
Both pilots – who were among seven people injured – ejected moments before the aircraft, which was from Strike Fighter Squadron 106, crashed.
One pilot was apparently still strapped into his seat but was able to speak and even apologised for hitting the building, according to witnesses.
Vicki Hoffman, who lives next door to the Mews, said one pilot landed on her neighbour’s patio.
“She said she was trying to get his head gear off and said the response was very quick,” she said. “He was conscious.”
Another witness, Kelly McQuaid, said: “[The pilot] actually looked pretty well. You could tell he was pretty dazed, and there were scratches on his face.”
Admiral John Harvey Jr, commander of the US Fleet Forces, has praised the “heroic response” of those at the complex and emergency personnel who took care of the air crew and others at the scene.
Investigators will remain on the scene for three or four days after the search is complete.
Oceana – a huge complex with more than seven miles (10km) of runways – is the base for 19 fighter squadrons and manned by around 14,600 military personnel.