Capturing the crash aftermath

December 9, 2008

Two hours after the news broke about a military jet crashing into San Diego homes, I received an email to You Witness from Ron Belanger with a link to dramatic photos of the incident. Here is Ron’s account of events.

I was working at home near MCAS Miramar in San Diego mid-day Monday, when I heard the unmistakable “pop… pop…” sound of ejection seats firing nearby but hadn’t heard the jet’s engines. As a retired Navy pilot and aircraft accident investigator I suddenly realized this meant that a pilotless aircraft and ejection seats would soon be coming down. I took cover under my desk then heard a deafening sound as the plane crashed and the house shook violently.

When I ran outside there was a large black cloud of smoke rising and I could feel the heat. I tried to call 911 but the line was already busy as other witnesses called in the emergency. I grabbed my shoes and camera and ran down to the scene which is five houses over from mine. Several of us asked neighbors if there was anyone in the house. Since that wasn’t known, we went down the right side, where part of the house was still standing, shouting out to anyone inside but there was no answer… just the roar of the fire and the sound of small explosions. We couldn’t go in because the house was fully involved in flames at every opening we found. As we were checking out the back yard, a propane tank from the camper which had been pushed into the house exploded. We quickly retreated since there was nothing we could do.

Pilots and investigators who arrive early on an accident scene are trained to document the scene and take photos if possible so that’s what I did. Copies of the pics are being provided to the accident investigators and public safety agencies.

We received Ron’s images shortly afterwards and quickly had our senior photographer contact him and negotiate a payment and rights of usage. A little over an hour later, the images were on the Reuters Pictures wire and sent around the world. Ron has received calls from friends and family globally after they saw his images online and in print.

A selection of other You Witness images used on the wire can be found here.

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