SAN DIEGO — A Navy plane crashed and burned in the parking lot of a high-tech industrial complex shortly after takeoff Monday, destroying 18 cars and burning a storage shed but injuring only two people.
The pilot, reserve Lt. Cmdr. David Strong of Washington, D.C., ejected at 300 feet and came down safely in the complex. Witnesses said he grabbed a hose from arriving firefighters to help put out the fire that erupted after the crash.
One injured man was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital for treatment of minor burns, and another was treated at the scene and released. A hospital spokesman identified the burn victim as Norberto Mora, 34, of Hacienda Heights. Mora was admitted in good condition.
A spokesman for Miramar Naval Air Station, three miles southeast of the crash site, said the aircraft was an unarmed F-8 Crusader photo reconnaissance plane. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Capt. G. E. Hakanson, commanding officer at Miramar, attributed the huge explosion that triggered a short-lived but spectacular fire to the jet's exploding fuel tanks. "It wouldn't have gone down if he (the pilot) was in control," Hakanson said. "I know he was trying to get the airplane over the hill into the water (Pacific Ocean)."
The plane went down in the Sorrento Valley, a growing industrial area that employs about 4,000 people in dozens of high-tech companies. Jets taking off from Miramar fly over the industrial area before they reach the Pacific Ocean, where they execute maneuvers.
A Navy spokesman said that since 1978, three jets based at Miramar have crashed in civilian areas around the base. There have been several reports of planes from the base crashing in the ocean.
Navy spokesman Lt. John Semcken said the plane's engine caught fire shortly after takeoff.
"The pilot stayed in the airplane for longer than he should have," Semcken said, adding that Strong did everything possible to put the fire out, including turning off his engine. The plane, which was airborne for less than two minutes, did not have enough airspeed to fly over a nearby hill. According to Semcken, Strong ejected 300 feet above ground.
'Pilot a Hero'
"The pilot is a hero as far as I'm concerned," said Glenn Kirkeby, an eyewitness. "The guy stayed with it (plane) as long as possible and tried to nurse it to a hill, away from the buildings."
The parking lot where the plane went down is between two three-story buildings where about 280 people work. The sides of the buildings that border the parking lot suffered extensive burn damage, and one building was clipped by the jet as it went down. The lab technicians who work in the building were all in meeting rooms on the opposite side from the crash.
Outside, the parking lot was a scene of devastation, littered with hundreds of chunks of the crashed jet and smoldering automobile bodies. In addition to the 18 cars that were destroyed in the fire, six others received minor damage.
Authorities ordered the other buildings around the crash site evacuated after police were told that toxic chemicals may have been stored in some of the buildings. The fire resulting from the crash was quickly controlled, however, and firefighters prevented it from spreading beyond the parking lot and a small storage area.
A Navy spokeswoman said Strong had flown the plane to San Diego last week from Andrews Air Force Base in Landover, Md.