As the crash site belched black smoke, residents ran toward the apartments but then ran away when subsequent explosions frightened them, eyewitnesses said.
"We're used to low-flying jets around here," said George Pilkington, who saw the jet fly over his truck.
"Because it was releasing so much fuel, I knew something was wrong," he added. "It sounded like the engine was straining or stressing.
"I don't know if there was a better or worse place to hit because there are so many apartments around the area," he told CNN. "If it was a half-mile to the west, it could have been a creek or marsh."
Pilkington said the plane was flying low, with its nose up and tail down.
"That it didn't cause more damage to the apartment buildings was a blessing," he said.
The jet was from a training squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana, the Navy and Federal Aviation Administration said.
Resident Gutkowski said the plane crash site was 75 yards from his home, and his wife saw the plane "almost fall out of the sky."
"What they're saying about ejecting very late is definitely true," Gutkowski said about reports that the pilots apparently ejected at a low altitude.
"Both ejection seats are right here, and the parachute is right by the crash site," Gutkowski told CNN.
Another witness, Zack Zapatero, said the plane crashed into a building occupied by senior citizens. He took photos of the scene.
"There's these large fireballs coming up," Zapatero said. "I was told there was a bunch of senior citizens that live in that building, which worries me a lot.
"Buildings were starting to collapse," he said of the wreckage scene.
"Through the smoke, you could see the end of the plane sitting in the courtyard," Zapatero said.
Colby Smith told CNN affiliate WVEX that he was in his bathroom when he felt his "whole house shaking." Then he looked out his bedroom window and "saw nothing but red, just red and orange flashing. And just a crackling noise. I was like, 'What is that?' " he said.
Smith said he ran outside, saw a friend and eventually spotted a pilot who was "laying there" and bleeding. He said he and several others then picked up the pilot and carried him to safety. It wasn't immediately clear Friday whether the pilot was the same one that Kavanaugh assisted.
CNN's Greg Botelho, Mike Ahlers and Sandra Endo contributed to this report.
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