Desert Sun staff and wire reports

MORENO VALLEY — An F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed into a warehouse just west of March Air Reserve Base in Moreno Valley Thursday while departing the airfield, where the pilot safely ejected before his plane went down, leaving three people injured on the ground. 

The pilot walked away after parachuting onto the end of Runway 32, according to reports from the scene.

The three people hurt at the crash site were taken to Riverside University Medical Center in Moreno Valley for treatment of minor injuries, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

The armed F-16, reportedly attached to an Air National Guard unit based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, went down about 3:45 p.m. and crashed into the See Water Inc. warehouse at 22220 Opportunity Way, near Meridian Parkway, in the Arnold Heights neighborhood just off of Interstate 215.

NBC4 reported at least one of the injured is an employee of a company housed in the warehouse, and was seriously hurt.

Witnesses reported seeing the jet shutter and roll moments before it plummeted earthward.

A battalion chief confirmed that the F-16 was carrying ordinance, prompting a hazardous materials response. The entire neighborhood was cordoned off, and occupants of neighboring buildings were ordered to shelter in place.

The California Highway Patrol shut down southbound I-215 for public safety, in case of explosions.

The F-16 pancaked onto the roof of the 500,000-square-foot building, causing a fire that triggered the on-site sprinkler system, containing the flames, according to reports from the scene.

The structure is stacked with plastic pipes, aluminum awnings and other construction material, according to the CHP, which was first to the scene. 

Frankie Sandoval co-owns Bous Performance on Opportunity Way, just west of the 215 Freeway in a building that is shared with See Water.  He is used to hearing March Air Reserve Base fighter jets shake his building upon takeoff.

But, he said, what he and his Moreno Valley coworkers experienced Thursday afternoon when the F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed into his automotive parts business was something completely unexpected.

Sandoval said he was standing where the plane crashed about 10 minutes prior to the incident.

“If I was standing there, I wouldn’t be here,” he said Thursday by phone. “I’d be gone. There would be no way I would survive that impact.”

Prior to the crash, Sandoval said a coworker approached him and said a plane appeared to be flying on its side. Sandoval went outside and saw the plane flying slowly at roughly a 90-degree angle.

“Maybe an engine went out and it was losing power,” he said.

A pilot ejected from the plane about a minute before it crashed into his building, according to Sandoval. He said he didn’t know where the pilot landed.

“It didn’t sound like much of anything,” he said of the crash. “It kind of just pierced through the roof.”

Two of his employees were inside the building when it happened. One was tossed “pretty far,” Sandoval said.

Paramedics had arrived by the time Sandoval entered the building.

Part of the warehouse was destroyed, Sandoval said. He estimated the losses were at least $250,000.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m just thankful to be alive.”

Daniel Gallegos, a warehouse worker, said he’s used to hearing the sound of planes coming and going, but the noise just before the crash was deafening.

“Next thing I know I just hear this explosion and turn around to the back of the building, and I just seen a burst of flames and just the ceiling started falling through every part of the building,” he told KABC-TV . “I turned around, and my co-worker just told me to get, so I just made a run for it.”

Gallegos said he believed one of his co-workers was struck by something — possibly a falling fire sprinkler — but wasn’t seriously hurt.

The crash happened as the pilot was landing following a routine training mission, March Air Reserve Base Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Holliday said.

“The pilot was having hydraulic problems,” Holliday said. “He started losing control of the aircraft.” 

The jet’s cockpit canopy was on a runway, and a parachute had settled in a nearby field.

Damage to the warehouse was relatively minor, and there was no major fire, which Holliday called “a miracle.”

Interstate 215, which runs between the base and the warehouse, was closed in both directions, backing up rush-hour traffic for miles.

Television news showed a large hole in the roof and sprinklers on inside the building about 65 miles (105 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

The jet’s cockpit canopy was on a runway and a parachute had settled in a nearby field.

The pilot, believed to be the only person on board the jet, was being medically evaluated, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office.

The F-16 is assigned to the Air National Guard, officials said.

March is home to the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, an Air Force Reserve component that utilizes mammoth C-17 transports, KC-135 refueling aircraft and C-130 transports.

The base is also home to the Air Force Reserve Command’s Fourth Air Force Headquarters and various units of the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, California Air National Guard and California Army National Guard.

Fighter jets are a rare sight at the base.

The last tactical jet crash at March occurred in 1989, when it was still an active-duty Air Force installation. That accident involved a fatality, according to published reports.