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Blue Angels jet crashes during air show, killing aviator

Story Highlights

• Pilot's family watched as jet crashed in final minutes of air show
• Beaufort County coroner's office confirms pilot killed
• The jet clipped the top of a pine tree during a sharp turn, a military source said
• The show was taking place near Beaufort, South Carolina
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(CNN) -- The family of the pilot killed Saturday watched as his F/A-18 Hornet crashed in a neighborhood during a U.S. Navy Blue Angels precision-flying team air show, Lt. Commander Anthony Walley said Saturday.

A military source told CNN the jet clipped the top of a pine tree during a sharp turn at the end of the team's aerial exhibition.

Fred Yelinek told CNN he saw the jet come down about 100 yards from him with an "earth-shattering rumble," sparking a "huge fireball" and hurtling pieces of debris into homes.

"Our squadron, and the entire U.S. Navy, are grieving the loss of a great American, a great naval officer, and most of all, a great friend," Walley said at a nighttime news conference in Beaufort, South Carolina.

The name of the pilot and information about him were being withheld for 24 hours, per a Department of Defense policy.

A Navy statement said the aviator had been on the team for two years -- and it was his first as a demonstration pilot. The accident was under investigation, the statement said. (Watch possible factors in the crash Video)

The jet crashed about 4 p.m. some three miles from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, which was hosting the two-day show, Walley said.

William Winn, Beaufort County emergency management director, said the crash damaged several houses. Video of one home's interior showed broken furniture, strewn debris, and chunks of exposed insulation and drywall. (Watch the damage left by the crash Video)

Winn told The Associated Press that eight people on the ground were injured. The extent of their injuries was not known.

Sunday's air show, part of the Low Country Blues Festival, would continue Sunday as scheduled, but the Blue Angels would not perform, Marine Corps Capt. Sarah Kansteiner said.

Yelinek said the jet struck a stand of pine trees, and pieces of the plane hit homes, but he didn't see any catch fire. The pieces were "as big as a hand but no larger," he said. (Watch Yelinek describe how the plane struck trees Video)

The AP described the crash site as a neighborhood of small houses and trailers.

Photos from the site showed a street littered with debris, some of it resembling blown-out tires, and nearby trees on fire with smoke trailing away. There were no large pieces of debris.

Pieces of a tree and the plane crashed into the home of a neighbor, Yelinek said, but she was uninjured. Pieces also hit other houses and smashed car windshields, he said.

"Most people were very shaken but unhurt," the witness said.

"I was working on a pump in the yard across the street from the initial impact, and I heard the Blue Angel go over ... in a full, tight formation," Yelinek said.

"And then, four or five minutes later, I hear them coming again, expecting to see pretty much the same thing. But I didn't hear any strange noises. And then it was the crashing sound of pieces of the airplane coming through the trees in the yard across the street."

"And then a huge fireball, maybe 200, 300 yards further on down. The debris started from the first impact with a pine tree, which was maybe 100 yards from my location."

"Part of the tree and the debris went through a house in that yard, then the main body of the airplane continued on about 300 more yards and hit about one city block further down at the intersection of Shanklin and Pine Grove roads. (Map)

"There's a lot of houses on all four corners of that intersection. And there was a lot of fire at that intersection, and continuing thereafter."

Another witness, Gerald Popp, said the six jets had been flying for about five minutes before one of them turned south, toward the Broad River. (Watch the story of the Blue Angels Video)

"I saw him go down lower than the trees, and next I saw a big black cloud of smoke," said Popp, who also lives in Beaufort.

Pam and Bill Edwards said they were watching the air show from the media stand when they realized something was terribly wrong.

"It was right at the end of the air show ... we counted four planes landing, and there was one circling in that smoky area right over the crash site," Bill Edwards said.

"I looked around the sky, and there was nothing else there. Then we saw the emergency helicopter go up, and we automatically assumed the worst at that point."

While the cause of the crash is unknown, Justin Cooke, an off-duty air traffic controller at the base, told CNN that birds pose a frequent problem to jets flying in the area, and can cause a crash.

"On an F-18, you have two motors, and if they take [a bird] in the engine, it could cause engine failure and shut that down," he said. He said the plane is capable of flying in excess of 450 mph.

The show also featured other aerial demonstration teams and civilian and military aircraft displays.

CNN meteorologists said the weather in Beaufort, which is near Savannah, Georgia, was clear.

The most recent crash involving the Blue Angels was in 1999 in south Georgia. Two aviators were killed when their F/A-18 jet crashed while trying to land during a training flight.

The Blue Angels, founded in 1951, perform for an estimated 15 million people at air shows each year.



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