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Man mourns family's loss, forgives pilot in jet crash

His wife, two young daughters and mother- in-law are killed as a Marine fighter smashes into San Diego house.

December 10, 2008|Richard Marosi and Tony Perry | Marosi and Perry are Times staff writers.

SAN DIEGO — One day after an F/A-18D Hornet fighter jet fell from the sky and crashed into his two-story house in San Diego's University City neighborhood, Dong Yun Yoon returned to a home and life in ruins.

Rescue workers sifting through the debris on Cather Avenue had found the bodies of his wife, two baby daughters and mother-in-law.

Yoon, 37, pressed a handkerchief to his face and seemed to stagger upon viewing what little remained: a charred garage wall, piles of blackened beams, the family's Toyota Corolla -- miraculously undamaged -- parked on the street, and flowers placed nearby in memory of his family.

"I believe my wife and two babies and mother-in-law are in heaven with God," Yoon said at a news conference afterward. "Nobody expected such a horrible thing to happen, especially right here, our house."

Yoon said he bore no ill will toward the Marine Corps pilot who ejected safely before the jet plunged into the neighborhood two miles west of the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. "I pray for him not to suffer for this action," Yoon said. "I know he's one of our treasures for our country."

The plane was on a training flight when it crashed into the residential neighborhood Monday, setting several houses aflame.

The bodies of Yoon's wife, Young Mi, 37; his nearly 2-month-old daughter, Rachel; and mother-in-law, Suk Im Kim, 60, were found Monday.

The body of his 15-month- old daughter, Grace, was recovered Tuesday.

Rescue crews had to dig through the wreckage of the second floor -- which collapsed onto the first floor -- with hand tools to uncover her body, which was found near the first-floor entrance, said Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

The Yoons, immigrants from South Korea, had moved into the neighborhood just a few weeks ago and tried to make friends in their own quiet ways, neighbors said.

Young Mi Yoon was often seen gardening, and her mother pushed her granddaughter's stroller around the area, chatting up neighbors in her broken English.

"They waved at us all the time," said neighbor Robert Johnson. "They were just nice people."

Dong Yun Yoon, a store manager at a retail business near the San Diego-Tijuana border, was a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated in 1989.

His wife, who emigrated four years ago, had just earned her nursing degree and was planning to go back to work, said the Rev. Daniel Shin, associate pastor of the Korean United Methodist Church of San Diego, which the family attended.

He said Young's mother had joined the family recently to help care for the newborn girl.

"They were at church last Sunday," Shin said. "Everybody was looking at the baby and how cute she was."

Residents, some of whom were prevented from returning to their homes because of the ongoing investigation and potentially toxic fumes still lingering in the wreckage, reacted with a mix of relief and sadness -- lucky to be alive but grieving for their neighbor's loss.

The plane narrowly missed several homes and light winds prevented the flames from spreading quickly. Two houses were destroyed, and four sustained damage, Luque said, correcting an earlier report of three destroyed homes.

"It's just providence," said Johnson, who was at home with his daughter and grandchild when the fighter plane crashed two houses away, sending them fleeing out their back door. "Thirty feet higher and the plane lands in our living room instead of theirs."

Neighbor Alain Blanc, a photographer who lives one house away, watched from his balcony as workers carefully sifted through the ashes.

"In the midst of great sadness, my only comfort is those who perished never knew what happened," he said. "They didn't have time to suffer."

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the initial investigation pointed to engine failure and found no link to the structural problems that caused the F/A fleet at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to be grounded briefly in October.

Hunter said he has asked the Marine Corps for a report on the plane's maintenance history to be included in the investigation. He said it is the first crash of an F/A-18D Hornet since the Marines took over the air station from the Navy.

Marine Corps officials disclosed Tuesday that the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was stationed 50 miles off the coast of San Diego when the pilot departed from it on his ill-fated flight. "Initial indications suggest that engine failure may have played a role, though we will not know for certain until an investigation is concluded," Marine Corps officials said in a statement.

They also said the pilot was told to make an emergency "arrested landing" at Miramar when his equipment failure became apparent. An arrested landing would have involved using a tail-hook device that catches the back of the plane when it touches down, much like the method used when a jet lands on an aircraft carrier.

The neighborhood is accustomed to the sound and sight of military planes at low altitude. During Yoon's news conference, several planes roared overhead, drowning out his voice.

Craig Meader said he and his neighbors, in effect, have front-row seats to the air station's annual air show. "The Blue Angels use our street to come in to Miramar," he said. "We get up on the roof and wave at the pilots."

Still, the thoughts of potential danger would linger, Meader said. "All these years living here, the big joke was that one of these days a jet could go down," he said.

--

richard.maros@latimes.com

tony.perry@latimes.com

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