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, but fire officials did not immediately know who died. Another person remained missing, and officials said the search was suspended until Tuesday morning.
"We just know that four people were inside, and three of them have been accounted for," Fire Department spokesman Maurice Luque 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.
The Navy recently inspected hundreds of F/A-18 Hornets built by Boeing Co. after discovering "fatigue cracks" on more than a dozen aircraft. The Navy announced last month it had grounded 10 of the jets and placed flight restrictions on another 20 until repairs could be made.