SMYRNA, Ga. -- A Navy training jet whose pilot had ejected moments earlier crashed like 'a black shadow' Thursday night into a wood-frame apartment complex, starting a massive fire and injuring the pilot and three civilians.
The A-7E Corsair II jet attached to a Navy Reserve squadron at Dobbins Air Force Base slammed into the Pine Village Apartments about 6:30 p.m. about a mile south from the sprawling military base in suburban Atlanta.
The jet was carrying up to 1,000 pounds of fuel, and authorities said that caused the fire to spread rapidly through the wooden-framed apartment complex on Windy Hill Road.
'I heard a loud pop and ran to the window,' apartment resident John Finch said, 'and within seconds our entire building was engulfed in flames. We barely had time to get out.
'A little girl and her mother came out of the next apartment and they were engulfed in flames,' Finch said. 'I ain't never seen nobody burned like that before.'
Three buildings with about a dozen units in the complex were gutted, and authorites evacuated the remaining units, fearing at the time that the plane might be carrying weapons. But Navy officials said the plane, a low-altitutde, low-speed attack fighter that can carry a variey of missiles, had no live munitions aboard.
Smyrna Fire Chief Larry Williams, who initially reported 12 injuries, said shortly before 10 p.m. that only four people, including the pilot, had been injured and there were no reports of fatalities.
'There was a lot of confusion originally,' he said, 'and everybody may have seen the same four ambulances. They only transported four people.'
Flames from the fire shot 200 feet into the night sky and were visible for several miles. A massive traffic jam soon developed around the crash site.
By 9 p.m., the fire had been doused and authorities began a door-to-door search in the complex. 'We don't know yet what's underneath all that debris,' Mayor Max Bacon said. 'That's what scares us all.'
Authorities said 28-year-old Margie Padovani and her 5-year-old daughter, whose name was withheld, were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta for treatment of burns over most of their bodies.
The pilot, who was not immediately identified, ejected from the single-engine, single-seat plane moments before the crash and parachuted into another apartment complex about a mile away. He was flown to Kennestone Hospital in nearby Marietta, where he was reported in critical condition with head injuries.
Lt. Cmdr. Jim Lawrence, who had flown the A-7 just before the accident, said 'there was no indication of anything wrong.'
Lawrence, who is also a civilian pilot with Delta Air Lines, said he understood there had been no indication of problems from the pilot before the crash.
Lawrence described Dobbins Air Force Base, which is in suburban Atlanta sandwiched between the bedroom communities of Smyrna and Marietta, as 'a very demanding' on pilots who take off and land there.
'It's like an inferno,' said a man who identified himself only as Jeff who lives in a nearby apartment complex, describing the fire. 'It's horrible. If anybody was in that building, there's no way they could have survived.'
Another witness said the crippled plane looked like 'a black shadow.'
'It was in a swoop and it was coming down in an arc,' the witness said. 'Then I saw a white flash. I saw the flames shooting up and black smoke, and I knew the plane was going down.'
One firefighter said rescue workers spent the first few minutes trying to keep people from returning inside the burning complex to retrieve personal items.
Lt. Randell Mills, a Navy information officer, said police and military authorities would cordon off the crash site 'for everyone's safety, and for national security purposes.'
The only other crash at Dobbins Air Force Base occurred in March 1964, killing the pilot and two people on the ground.
Authorities said the A-7 was making a landing approach to Dobbins whenthe aircraft experienced unspecified mechanical failure. The pilot ejected, the plane veered southward and slammed into the wooden apartment complex, engulfing most of the buildings in flames.
The office of the Atlantic Fleet based in Norfolk, Va., said the aircraft and pilot were assigned to the Naval Reserve attack squadron 205, which is made up primarily of commercial airline pilots.
The American Red Cross made arrangments with a nearby motel to house the residents evacuated from the apartment complex, one of many in the area.
At least 62 people have been killed this year in Navy disasters before Thursday night's crash, including 47 by a gun turret explosion aboard the battleship USS Iowa on April 19; six in a fire aboard the supply ship USS White Plains on May 9; two in a fuel pump explosion and fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS America on May 14; five killed in the crash of a training jet aboard the carrier USS Lexington on Oct. 29; and one each washed overboard from the carrier USS Eisenhower and the USS Carl Vinson, both on Oct. 31.