For residents who live under the flight paths of the Navy's East Coast master jet base, Friday's crash was a nightmare come true.
And yet, despite the wreckage, the smell of burning jet fuel and the destruction of about 40 apartments, the aftermath seemed the best outcome from a worst-case scenario.
Bystanders helped disentangle two pilots from their parachutes and assisted firefighters dragging hoses into place before police cordoned off the area.
Staff at a nearby hospital set up an incident command center in the emergency room and pitched a decontamination tent outside in case patients arrived covered in jet fuel, but didn't need to use it. As of Friday evening, no casualties were reported, though three people were unaccounted for, all from the same building.
Some referred to it as a Good Friday miracle.
Gov. Bob McDonnell said it was amazing that no fatalities were confirmed in the hours after the crash.
"I think it's an act of divine providence," he told The Virginian-Pilot.
The Navy fighter jet from Oceana Naval Air Station plunged into the senior citizens apartments shortly after takeoff, around 12:05 p.m., exploding into a fireball. It left a crater in the complex. Roofs and floors crashed down, leaving gaping holes in five buildings. Witnesses described it as an inferno. For hours afterward, the smell of jet fuel hung in the air.
About 100 people lived at Mayfair Mews.
The aviators in the two-seat F/A-18D Hornet ejected moments before the jet crashed, sending inky plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. The Navy said it was investigating the cause of the crash, citing a "catastrophic mechanical malfunction."
The pilots were taken to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital with minor injuries; the Navy said Friday night that both were doing well. In addition to the pilots, the hospital treated two patients for smoke inhalation and one who blacked out at the scene. Later, they treated a police officer injured in a fall and an EMS worker with knee pain.
Oceana's 300 fighter jets regularly scream over the neighborhood near Birdneck and Laskin roads, the roar of their dual engines momentarily drowning out all other sounds. The skies have been particularly busy since December, with squadrons practicing landing maneuvers at Oceana while a nearby practice site is renovated.
After touring the site with firefighters Friday afternoon, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said he was stunned by the wreckage and feared people probably had died in the crash.
"We're blessed so far nobody has been found dead," he said. "I don't expect that to be the case by the end of this.... Right now, I just pray that our fatalities are low."
The jet, a two-seater, belongs to VFA (Strike Fighter Squadron) 106, a training squadron for pilots learning how to fly F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.
The squadron, nicknamed the Gladiators, trains about 100 Navy and Marine pilots a year. They start with daytime flights, then progress to air-to-air and air-to-ground combat training missions, usually over the Atlantic Ocean or at Dare County Bombing Range in North Carolina. Before leaving the squadron, they master the skills needed to land on an aircraft carrier.
Cmdr. Phil Rosi, a Navy spokesman, said an experienced instructor was in the back seat of the F/A-18D, with the student pilot in the front seat. The pair was intending to head out over the Atlantic for a routine training flight along with three other jets.
They took off using Oceana's longest runway, 5R, following the typical pattern Oceana jets use to head over water. The route takes them over Interstate 264, Laskin Road and the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
Something went wrong soon after they were airborne.
Robert Cunningham was in the shower when he heard two explosions and felt the building shake.
"I thought it was a really big earthquake," said Cunningham, who lives in an apartment about 100 feet from the crash site. "When I ran outside, ashes were coming down out of the sky."
Sea Pines apartment complex resident Harvey Campbell also ran outside when he heard the crash. He was overwhelmed by smoke, he said, and hit the ground after a series of explosions.
His hands shook as he spoke with a reporter an hour later. His clothes still smelled of smoke and fuel.
"I hear those jets flying over every night," he said. "We always feared this would happen - always knew it was possible. I just thank God it didn't hit us, and pray everyone else is OK."
The fire set off by the crash took about an hour to bring under control.
Police shut down Interstate 264 and blocked off Birdneck Road between Virginia Beach Boulevard and Laskin Road, snarling traffic for much of the day. Residents and gawkers desperate to get a look at the wreckage parked at strip plazas and hiked several blocks to the scene. Some biked in from nearby neighborhoods after watching TV reports, following the black plume that marked the wreckage.
At a McDonald's a few blocks away, a packed dining room huddled around a flat-screen TV and watched CNN coverage of the crash. The restaurant briefly served as a meeting place for residents who were unable to get through police blockades and return to homes. Jason Pollard stood cross-armed and stared at the footage from a news helicopter.
"I live across the street," Pollard said. "That could have been me."
Authorities set up a shelter at Birdneck Elementary School for those displaced by the accident.
Witnesses described jet fuel being dumped from the plane in the moments before it crashed.
George Pilkington had just arrived at Cape Henry Racquet Club when he noticed the jet overhead. "The nose was up, it almost looked like it was trying to land," he said.
This wasn't like the jets that normally fly overhead, he said. "The engines were straining, but there was no smoke coming out of the plane," he said.
Then his car was splashed by jet fuel.
A moment later, he saw smoke and flames.
Amy Miller was standing outside the cleaners where she works on Birdneck Road when she saw the plane coming down with fire on its wing.
"I saw two parachutes eject. I saw them open up and then head toward the ground to the right of the jet."
About two seconds later, the plane crashed. It appeared to have its landing gear down, she said.
The two pilots' lives probably were saved by the doomed jet's ejection seats, which use multiple rockets to get occupants out in a matter of seconds.
Tom Pavlik is a consultant for Martin Baker, the company that makes the seats in every Navy F/A-18 Hornet. He said the seats use solid-rocket propellants.
After a pilot pulls the ejection handles, two rocket motors embedded in the frame of the jet's canopy push the glass away from the plane, he said. Another set of rockets thrust the backseat out of the plane with the front seat following in a different direction. A third set of rockets deploy the parachutes.
"The whole idea is to get out of the airplane and under a parachute as fast as possible, particularly when you're at low altitude," Pavlik said. "One or two seconds is the difference between life and death."
Pilot writers Kerry Dougherty, Stacy Parker, Cindy Clayton, Kathy Adams, David Schleck, Patrick Wilson, Lauren King, Jennifer Jiggetts and Julian Walker contributed to this story.
Kate Wiltrout, 757-446-2629, email@example.com