IMPERIAL — Imperial resident Raul Aceves was sleeping with his daughter Wednesday afternoon when he heard a big bang and felt an explosion like an earthquake with glass breaking. He saw smoke from a street over, put on his sandals and ran over.
"I get there and there's pieces of plane and the home was burning," he said on Wednesday.
A military aircraft had crashed in a home's front yard, and the home's garage was on fire with a vehicle inside.
"Everyone was yelling to back off," Aceves said, but he ran between flames as he saw an old man up against a wall inside, seemingly dazed.
"As I'm going in, I just said a prayer because I'm just trying to help this man. I have a family, too, and the car could explode," he said with his voice shaking. "I have a family, too. I said a prayer, 'Lord let me help these people.'"
There were two more people inside a home also seemingly in shock and unaware that their home was on fire, Aceves said, and he helped to lead them out to safety as well.
"I could see they didn't know where to go," he said.
Authorities arrived within minutes and began to take over. Aceves returned home, wearing one sandal, to comfort his upset wife.
"I said if something were to happen in front of my house, I'd like someone to be brave enough to pull you out," he said he told her. "It's my duty as a human being to help out others."
A Marine AV-8B Harrier fighter jet had left Marine Corps Air Station Yuma about an hour prior to crashing into the front yard of the home on Fonzie Avenue near the intersection of Cabo San Lucas Avenue around 4:15 p.m.
The pilot ejected safely and was transported to Pioneers Memorial Hospital for evaluation.
The fighter jet crashed into the front yard of the home, but debris from the aircraft caused further significant damage to the home. Wreckage could be seen strewn throughout the park across from the home, and firefighters battled flames pouring out of the home's roof, which was destroyed.
Three homes were damaged in the incident, and at least two families have been displaced, said Imperial Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas. Eight homes were reported as evacuated by late evening, and more families may be displaced as a result of the incident.
No one died in the incident, and no major injuries were reported. The fire was under control by 7:30 p.m.
In 2012, a Marine AV-8B Harrier fighter jet also crashed into Felicity, and there have been at least 15 crashes now involving the Harrier fighter jet leaving from MCAS Yuma since 1996. A Harrier leaving MCAS Yuma also crashed in the desert near Phoenix in May, according to Associated Press.
The jet has been called the "widow-maker" and has been the focus of multiple congressional hearings and reviews on the aircraft's safety. Billions of dollars have been spent on modifying and repairing it.
While the fighter yet is lauded for its ability to land and take off on very short to non-existent runways, at least a third of its fleet has been destroyed in crashes, and 45 Marines have died in 148 noncombat accidents by 2004, according to a past Los Angeles Times article.
Multiple other residents were also seen helping to pull others to safety following the crash on Wednesday.
"There was a lot of panic and yelling and uncertainty, confusion with neighbors," said Carlos Roacho who had just left his nearby home on Rosarito Avenue when the crash occurred.
Nearly all Valley fire departments responded to the scene as well as authorities including California Highway Patrol, Imperial police and Border Patrol, whose El Centro Sector Headquarters is just a short drive away.
"Everybody was trying to help, and then everyone arrived," Roacho said. "I'm just grateful nobody's hurt and the pilot made it out alive."
Andy Bernal was standing with his fiancee in a driveway just two blocks away when she saw the pilot eject and the aircraft start coming down. He immediately drove over and began helping residents out of homes with others.
"They didn't know what was going on. They just heard a loud bang. Everyone was just scared. A lot of kids were crying," he said. "There was fire and black smoke everywhere, little bits of debris burning in the yard and in the street all around ... I'm still kind of in shock and surprised that something like that would happen in my own neighborhood."
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or email@example.com
This story was amended to clarify a detail.