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.
"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.
Firefighters hosed down rubble more than three hours after the crash as white smoke continued to rise from it. Authorities said the smoke was toxic, and about 20 homes were evacuated.
There was little sign of the plane in the smoking ruins, but a piece of cockpit sat on the roof of one home, and a charred jet engine lay on a street near a parked camper. A parachute was visible in the canyon below a row of houses.
The neighborhood in the University City section of San Diego smelled of jet fuel and smoke. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars choked the streets. A Marine Corps bomb disposal truck was there, although police assured residents there was no ordnance aboard the jet.
Neighbors described chaos after the jet tore into the houses and flames erupted.
"It was pandemonium," said Paulette Glauser, 49, who lived six houses away. "Neighbors were running down toward us in a panic, of course."
Jets frequently streak over the neighborhood, two miles from the base, but residents said the imperiled aircraft was flying extremely low.
Jordan Houston was looking out his back window three blocks from the crash when the plane passed by. A parachute ejected from the craft, followed by a loud explosion and a mushroom-shaped cloud.
Houston, 25, said a truck exploded after the driver backed over flaming debris and then jumped from the cab yelling, "I just filled up my gas tank."
The Marine Corps said the pilot was part of the Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101, based at Miramar.
An F-18, a supersonic jet used widely in the Marine Corps and Navy and by the stunt-flying Blue Angels, costs about $57 million. An F-18 crashed at Miramar - known as the setting for the movie "Top Gun" - in November 2006, and that pilot also ejected safely.
The crash was near University City High School, where students were kept locked in classrooms after the crash. Barbara Prince, a school secretary, said there was no damage to the campus and no one was injured.
Neighbors jolted by the crash said they initially thought it was the sound of gunshots, a train derailment or tractor-trailer trucks colliding.
"It was quite violent," said Ben Dishman, 55, who was resting on his couch after having back surgery. "I hear the jets from Miramar all the time. I often worry that one of them will hit one of these homes. It was inevitable. I feel very lucky."
Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Alicia Chang in Los Angeles and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.