SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A military jet on a training mission crashed into a suburban San Diego neighborhood on Monday, destroying two houses, killing three people and leaving another missing, although the pilot ejected safely, officials said.
The F/A-18D fighter suffered a mechanical problem when approaching the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar after taking off from an aircraft carrier offshore in the Pacific as part of a training exercise.
Speaking to reporters about the casualties, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said, “We know that apparently there might have been a grandmother, and a mother and two children” in one of the homes reduced to rubble by the fiery crash.
A police spokeswoman said hours later that the confirmed death toll remained at three, with one person still missing. But she had no information about the identities or relationship of the victims.
The San Diego Union Tribute reported on its website that a mailman who narrowly missed being struck by the crippled plane said he had delivered a Korean newspaper minutes earlier to the home where the fatalities occurred.
Ron Belanger, who lives five houses from the crash site, said the whole neighborhood shook. The plane left a deep gash in the pavement it struck before plowing into two homes. Five other homes were damaged.
Authorities evacuated 20 homes in the well-manicured neighborhood of San Diego, which lies near the border with Mexico, as they continued the search for victims and evidence.
The pilot parachuted into a school field and got caught up in a tree. He was alert and walking after the crash and was taken to a military hospital as a precaution, said Lt. Katheryn Putnam, a spokeswoman for the air station.
A construction contractor working nearby who rushed to the pilot’s aid said the aviator was “a little shaken up” when he first got down from the trees but otherwise seemed fine.
“The first thing he said to me, even before he said, ‘I‘m OK,’ he said, ‘I hope I didn’t kill anybody,'” contractor Jason Widmer said. He said the pilot, a lieutenant, told him both the fighter jet’s engines had failed in flight.
Witnesses told local radio the pilot might have been intending to crash the plane in a nearby canyon in order to avoid hitting a school.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Writing by Mary Milliken, editing by Patricia Zengerle