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Last of jet crash site residents located, keeping death toll at none

A supersonic military jet fighter crashes into a densely populated urban neighborhood at midday. Flames erupt. At least 40 apartments are destroyed or damaged.

But, miraculously, no one is killed. Only seven people, including the two aviators aboard, are injured, none seriously.

How is that possible? Civilian and military officials in this military town were struggling to answer that question Saturday, less than 24 hours after a Navy F/A-18D Hornet on a training mission slammed into an apartment complex just after noon Friday. Fire department officials announced Saturday morning that three residents unaccounted for Friday night had been located and that all residents of the complex were safe.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms called it a "Good Friday miracle."

"I think it's an act of divine providence," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Other officials attributed the absence of fatalities to good luck, regular crew and emergency training, a quick response by police and fire departments and the coolheaded assistance of people in the apartment complex.

One of the pilots, still attached to his parachute, was helped by residents, many of whom escorted neighbors to safety in the chaotic moments after the crash.

Fire department officials said the fire was not as bad as it could have been because much of the plane's fuel was dumped just before the crash. The Navy said it was not yet clear whether that was because of mechanical malfunctions or because of actions taken by the two aviators before they parachuted to safety. And because the plane crashed on a weekday afternoon, many residents were at work or away on errands.

Navy Capt. Mark Weisgerber of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the two-seat Hornet experienced a "catastrophic mechanical malfunction" and praised the crew. "The mitigating factor in this is there was an eminently well-trained and qualified teacher in the back seat" of the doomed plane, he said.

Witnesses interviewed at the scene said police and fire crews were at the site within minutes, moving residents to safety with the assistance of neighbors. The fire was under control in about an hour, witnesses said.

Military and civilian first responders train regularly for such catastrophes, emergency officials said Saturday. As recently as December, crews trained together during a drill at a nearby military base, working to put out a training fire at a simulated plane crash and treating mock casualties.

After searching apartments damaged or destroyed in the crash, emergency officials said that Saturday morning they had accounted for all residents of the Mayfair Mews complex.

Navy officials said Saturday they were continuing to investigate the cause of the crash.

Six people, including one of the pilots, were treated at a local hospital and released Friday. The other pilot was released Saturday. The Navy described his injuries as relatively minor and said he was doing well.

A student pilot was in the front seat of the jet and the experienced instructor was in the rear, the Navy said. One of them apologized for the crash to residents who assisted him, a witness told reporters.