BY SOFIA SANCHEZ, KARL PUCKETT , SAM OGOZALEK, KACEN BAYLESS, AND RACHEL JONES
An F/A-18D Hornet military jet crashed on former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s family property in Beaufort County on Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. Marine Corps and witnesses.
The combat jet went down at about 3:15 p.m., according to a Marine Corps news release. The plane crashed on Coosaw Plantation near Halfmoon Island, said Sarah Sanford Rauch, the former governor’s sister
Two Marine pilots were able to safely eject from the jet and are in stable condition, the Marine Corps said. They were “conducting a routine flight.”
Sanford Rauch, who saw the jet take off from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, said one pilot had a “really bloody lip” after the crash, but otherwise was fine.
Mark Sanford, the former governor, said the jet crashed near where his late father is buried on Coosaw Plantation, which is the family’s property. Sanford and his siblings grew up there, said the former governor, who was not at the scene Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been pandemonium,” Sanford said when reached by phone.
Sanford Rauch, his sister, in a phone call Thursday provided this account of the crash, which she said caused a “colossal explosion”:
“We watched this plane take off, and my brother (Bill) made a comment about the afterburner and … it was like this great yellow, white flame shooting out of the back of one of the engines, and I said, ‘That’s a fire.’ Then all of a sudden, the plane started slowing down and slowing down, and the flames were getting bigger and bigger, and they were, you could tell, kind of reeving to try to stay in the air, and all of a sudden it just slowed down and then it went nose-down … and I yelled to my brother, ‘No, no, no, no, no, it’s going down.’ (I) watched it roll, and then go nose dive, and then a couple seconds later, it was a colossal explosion.
“We jumped in a truck to go get them, to see if we could find the pilots, and then my other brother (John) happened to be driving in, and he is a pilot, he saw them eject I guess, and he went racing back over to find them. We could see the parachutes in the trees and stuff.”
The Sheldon Fire District and Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office were at the scene late Thursday afternoon, officials from both agencies said. The Burton Fire District also sent several firefighters to help support the Sheldon Fire District while they worked at the scene, said Capt. Dan Byrne of the Burton Fire District.
People in the area who are exposed to smoke are recommended to wear a mask, Maj. Bob Bromage with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said.
The area is under “controlled access,” meaning only people who live in the area are able to get in or out, Bromage said.
Halfmoon Island is in the northern part of Beaufort County, near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and multiple unincorporated communities like Dale, Lobeco and Seabrook. The federal government will investigate the cause of the crash, an alert from the Sheriff’s Office said.
People should avoid the area, the Marine Corps news release said, and nearby residents should stay inside as much as possible because of smoke from both the aircraft and a brush fire sparked by the crash.
Marine Corps Police and the Sheriff’s Office were at a checkpoint on Witsell Road late Thursday, preventing traffic from reaching the area. Fire crews remained on the scene Thursday evening to control the brush fire, according to air station spokesperson Capt. Thomas Jones.
Charles Allen, of Dale, was standing in his yard Thursday when he heard an extremely loud “boom,” he said near his home on Witsell Road a few hundred feet from the point where authorities had blocked the road.
“You know how a bomb sounds?” Allen said.
Four Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons and two F-35B fleet replacement squadrons operate out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, according to the Marine Corps.
The D model of the F/A-18 was first produced by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) in 1987 in St. Louis and costs $29 million per unit, according to the U.S. Navy. F-18Ds are used by the Navy for “attack, tactical air control, forward air control and reconnaissance squadrons,” according to Military.com.
The plane that crashed Thursday was assigned to the VMFA 533 All-Weather Squadron, according to Jones, who spoke at the scene late Thursday. He said the crash caused some private property damage, “but we’re working with people who own the property.” There were no civilian casualties, Jones said.
The crash sparked a fire, Jones said, and emergency crews will remain on scene until it is out and the aircraft is moved. He would not comment on the cause of the crash because it still is being investigated.
In September 2018, a pilot ejected safely from a fighter jet that crashed on a small island a few miles from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The plane was a single-seat Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II that was attached to the Marine Corps training squadron VMFAT-501. There were no casualties on the ground, and the pilot was evaluated by medical personnel.