A US Navy F-18 fighter jet crashed just after take-off Friday, plunging into a low-rise Virginia apartment building and triggering a massive inferno but injuring only six people, officials said.
The two crew members ejected from the jet which hit a populated area in the eastern coastal tourist resort of Virginia Beach, the Navy said on Twitter.
“RECAP — what we know — F18 from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 crashed in VA Beach. Both pilots ejected, more info as we get it,” said a tweet on the official @USNavy account.
“Pilots ejected safely, but being transported to local hospital for observation,” it added.
Thick black smoke hung over the area, and part of the jet’s wreckage was clearly visible resting on grass behind some buildings as emergency teams doused the area with foam to tamp down the blaze.
Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital told AFP the two pilots were in good condition, and being treated there along with four other civilian casualties.
“Two for smoke inhalation, one of whom is already released,” said media spokesman Dale Gauding.
Firefighters were desperately trying to control the blaze, which had broken out in the heavily-built up urban area. Witnesses said the plane came down suddenly and the spilling of jet fuel may have exacerbated the blaze.
“The buildings were starting to collapse,” Zack Zapatero told CNN television as images showed buildings with their roofs shorn off, and charred and burning top floors.
“I did not see anyone running out and I was told that there’s a bunch of senior citizens that live in those buildings which that worries me a lot.
“It was just unbelievable. Law enforcement was really quick to get on the scene. But the amount of jet fuel that you could just smell on the ground, it didn’t seem right,” he said.
Another witness, Jon Swain, described how the plane smashed into the apartment block.
“There were flames coming out of its engine at the back, which I just thought was afterburn or whatever… but the plane got lower and lower. I saw one pilot eject,” he told MSNBC.
“It hit it dead center. And yeah, it’s pretty traumatic. There were a few people running from the building,” Swain added.
Virginia Beach battalion fire chief Tim Riley said there had been no reports of any missing residents, and said they had long feared an accident could happen after two recent scares during training flights.
“We have had two mishaps (in) training over the past two years,” Riley said, adding, “We have the military here and we have an enhanced system and we have… trained and planned for events of this magnitude.”
Another witness, Joanna Highet, also said the plane was very low and had disappeared out of her line of sight behind some trees.
“Initially we heard nothing, and then when the smoke started after about 15, 20, 30 seconds we heard an explosion,” she told CNN.
“We drove back and saw lots of black smoke and the apartment complex on fire from both ends.”
A separate Navy statement said the plane that crashed was part of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA), based nearby at Naval Air Station Oceana.
“Initial reports indicate that at approximately 12:05 pm, the jet crashed just after takeoff at a location just off of the base,” it said. “Both aircrew safely ejected from the aircraft.”
Oceana, which is a vast complex with more than seven miles (10 kilometers) of runways, is manned by 14,600 military personnel and home to 19 fighter squadrons.