SAN DIEGO – Residents near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar are accustomed to loud, low-flying military jets, but they immediately knew something was wrong when they heard the skies thunder. The explosions came moments later.
After the pilot safely ejected, an F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet crashed in the street of a quiet neighborhood Monday and tore into a home with four people inside, authorities said. Three people — a mother, her baby and a grandmother — were killed, fire and coroner's officials said. Another young child was missing, and rescue crews planned to resume searching at daybreak Tuesday.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner said on its Web site that it had tentatively identified each of the victims and was in contact with family members for further confirmation. No names were released.
Two homes were destroyed and three damaged in the neighborhood of half-million dollar houses.
"It happened in a split second — boom, boom, boom," said Alain Blanc, 64, a retired photographer who lives next to the destroyed homes and was working on his computer. "The whole house started shaking and rocking."
Blanc heard what he thought were exploding propane tanks. Two neighbors said a pickup truck caught fire after a driver ran over flaming debris and yelled that his gas tank was full as he fled the vehicle.
Terri Scheidt, who was wrapping Christmas presents, heard an "unbelievably loud" sound, followed by explosions. She saw two homes engulfed in flames when she ran around the corner.
Someone led an older woman from one of the homes, "completely in shock," Scheidt 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, said 1st Lt. Katheryn Putnam, a Miramar spokeswoman. He had been returning from training on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the San Diego coast when the plane went down, she said.
Dawn Lyons spoke to the pilot just after he landed in the tree.
"I saw an incredibly composed person," Lyons said. "He didn't have any scrapes or bruises. He was very lucid."
Authorities said the smoke that poured out of the wreckage three hours after the crash was toxic and about 20 homes were evacuated. By Monday night, six uninhabitable homes remained empty, authorities said.
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.
The neighborhood in the University City section of San Diego smelled like a brush fire doused with jet fuel. Streets were choked with rescue vehicles. A Marine Corps bomb disposal truck was there, although police assured residents there was no ordnance aboard the jet. The team was looking for the aircraft's second ejection seat, which does have a small explosive charge, Marine officials told the Los Angeles Times.
Neighbors described chaos after the jet smashed 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.
There was no initial cause given for the crash, though the Navy recently inspected hundreds of F/A-18 Hornets built by Boeing Co. after discovering "fatigue cracks" on more than a dozen aircraft. The Navy announced last month it had grounded 10 of the $57 million jets and placed flight restrictions on 20 more until repairs could be made.
The inspectors checked the Hornets for cracks in a hinge that connects the aileron — a flap that helps stabilize the jet in flight — to the wing.
The supersonic jet is widely used by the Marine Corps and Navy and by the stunt-flying Blue Angels. An F-18 crashed at Miramar — known as the setting for the movie "Top Gun" — in November 2006, and that pilot also ejected safely.
There was no indication the pilot in Monday's crash was using alcohol or drugs, Putnam said. Investigators will review information from a flight data recorder before reaching any conclusions on what went wrong.