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3 dead after military jet crashes in Calif.

Image: Firefighters battle flames next to the remains of a military jet that crashed into homes in San Diego
Firefighters battle flames next to the remains of a military jet that crashed into homes in the University City neighborhood of San Diego.Fred Greaves / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A fighter jet returning to a Marine base after a training exercise crashed in flames in a San Diego neighborhood Monday, killing three people on the ground, leaving one missing and destroying two homes.

The pilot of the F/A-18D Hornet jet ejected safely just before the crash around noon at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Explosions rocked a neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes, sending flames and plumes of smoke skyward.

"The house shook; the ground shook. It was like I was frozen in my place," said Steve Krasner, who lives a few blocks from the crash. "It was bigger than any earthquake I ever felt."

Three people were killed in a house where two children, a mother and a grandmother were believed to be at the time of the crash. No names have been released.

Search suspended
Another person remained missing, but a search through the debris of the two destroyed homes was suspended Monday evening and expected to resume in the morning, police spokeswoman Monica Munoz 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 in San Diego, said Miramar spokeswoman 1st Lt. Katheryn Putnam. The pilot was returning from training on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the San Diego coast when the plane went down, she said.

Putnam had no details on a possible cause. Investigators will review information from a flight data recorder, and there was no indication the pilot was using alcohol or drugs, she said.

Jordan Houston, 25, was looking out his back window three blocks from the crash when he saw a low-flying plane. A second parachute with an empty seat ejected from the aircraft, and he heard an explosion.

Found pilot walking around
He reported a mushroom-shaped burst of flame and said he skateboarded toward the scene and found a pilot walking around.

A truck backed over the flaming debris, Houston said, and the driver jumped out and yelled, "I just filled up my gas tank." The truck exploded shortly afterward.

There was little sign of the plane in the smoky ruins, but a piece of cockpit sat on the roof of one home. A parachute lay in a canyon below the neighborhood.

The middle-class neighborhood smelled like a brush fire. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars choked the streets.

A Navy bomb disposal truck was at the site, and Marines were talking with police. Authorities told observers to leave because the smoke was toxic.

"We saw two big bangs," resident Scott Patterson told KNX radio. "The smoke came up. We don't know what it was."

Neighbor Ben Dishman told MSNBC that the crash shook his house about a block away in the densely populated area.

"I knew definitely it was an explosion. ... It was pretty strong," Dishman said.

Dean Costa, who was about two blocks away at his father's house, said he felt the building vibrate, then made his way close to the crash site and saw two houses on fire and several cars explode.

'It was just crazy' "It was just crazy," said Costa, 22. "There was debris everywhere."

Vern Larson told KNSD-TV he was doing some Christmas decorating when he heard the crash and saw the parachute descend into a canyon and out of sight. Larson jumped into his car and drove down to the crash site.

"I found the parachute, but there was no one in the parachute," Larson said. He said someone from the air base inspected the chute as well but there was no one in the area.

A large, busy area of the city was blocked off to traffic, creating a long backup on I- 805, which remained open.

Students at nearby University City High School were kept locked in classrooms, but there was no damage to the campus and no one was injured, said Barbara Prince, a school secretary.

The F-18 is a supersonic jet used widely in the Navy and Marine Corps and by the Navy's stunt-flying Blue Angels. An F-18 crashed at Miramar in November 2006, but the pilot ejected safely.

Miramar, well known for its role in the movie "Top Gun," is home to some 10,000 Marines. It was operated by the Navy until 1996.