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THE SITUATION ROOM

Navy Jet Slams into Apartments; Virginia Beach Mayor Holds Press Conference

Aired April 6, 2012 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, at least nine people injured and a search underway for the missing after a Navy jet plunges into an apartment complex leaving a neighborhood in shock. A live update is just ahead.

Plus, was this a disaster waiting to happen?

Why calls close to this base may have been ignored.

And while the Pentagon tries to cut billions of dollars from the budget, the Defense secretary is flying home on almost $1 million of your money.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Joe Johns.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A neighborhood covered in debris and the stench of jet fuel still fresh in the air. You're looking at live aerials just hours after a two seater Navy jet plunged into an apartment complex, immediately setting the buildings around it ablaze. Miraculously, at this point, there are no reports of deaths.

Let's go straight to our Brian Todd with the very latest -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe, what we know right now, this is the very latest from Virginia Beach mayor, Bill Sessoms, who was just on CNN's air a moment ago. Nine confirmed injuries at this time, people on the ground injured by this crash, according to Mayor Sessoms. This -- this was because of the plane crash that occurred shortly after noon, this F/A-18D fighter plane attached to the Naval Air Station at Oceana.

We're going to show you some of the very latest pictures. We have some ground view pictures of the disaster from an iReporter named James Conrad, who took some video for us. This is brand new video.

You can see just the ferocity of these flames just lapping up over the roof of the building, coming through the windows. Just some incredible images there from literally moments after this crash. It just look -- it really gives you an illustration of just the -- the tough task ahead for the first responders as they get there and that they're still facing at this hour.

One thing that the mayor just told us is that they've gone through two of the five buildings that were damaged in this crash. They have three more buildings to go through. So you may see some very different casualty figures in the hours ahead.

Another piece of video we're going to show you, just from a slightly different angle from the ground there. Again, flames as the first responders rushed to the scene there.

One of the people we were told was injured by smoke inhalation was a police officer who responded to the scene.

Again, the nine people injured on the ground include, apparently, according to officials, the two crew members. All of these people who were injured treated for non-life threatening injuries.

Look at the smoke there. That is what the battalion chief of the Virginia Beach Fire Department, Tim Riley, said he was most concerned of, the carbon fibers from the smoke. This is a very distinctive type of smoke coming from this plane. You see it here in this just incredible video of the first responders just in the moments after the crash.

Some ground view there of them coming to the scene and just trying to get, you know, get organized on the ground, get to the scene as quickly as possible, sift through the damage, find survivors.

We have another piece of video here. There's actually some still pictures here of the tail section of the plane on the ground just moments after the crash. There you can see it, very dramatic. I mean you can see just some of the -- some of the sections of that tail on the ground, some other still videos here of the -- of the scene. Again, smoke from the Virginia Department of Transportation cameras that you see emanating from the scene.

I have a little clip of some sound from Battalion Chief Tim Riley on just how tough it is for them to go searching through some of this wreckage in these early hours after the crash.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BATTALION CHIEF TIM RILEY, VIRGINIA BEACH FIRE DEPARTMENT: They've had some collapses. There has been a pancake collapse, which is a flat collapse. And then we had some voids. So right now, the structure is too unsafe to get into. And we're going to have to like shore that up before we can put weight on that. We have -- we're working with the hotel management and anybody that -- I mean, excuse me, the apartment management to find out if anybody is missing. So far, we haven't had that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: And we're going to show you some other video now, just to -- to illustrate just the -- the scene at hand and just what was going through the minds of the -- of the first responders and the citizens. You see citizens there helping the first responders, taking hoses across the street. Everybody joining in here, just incredible video of just the moments after this crash and when people from the neighborhood, while some of them are taking video, others are helping, just rushing to help the first responders get those hoses across the street and get some of those flames out.

Again, in the very early stages right after that, first responders will all -- will always tell you that just navigating through flames and smoke and very -- and materials very, very hot to the touch are some of the most treacherous parts of responding to this.

Now let's talk location here. This occurred just after the plane took off from the Naval Air Station at Oceana. We're going to show you this Google Map here from this runway, just about two miles to the crash site. This is the Mayfear -- Mayfair Mews Apartments on Broadneck Road. We're just going to go there and show you these buildings that were hit. Five buildings damaged here by this crash. But they have a total of, well, probably eight or nine buildings in this complex, about three or four floors to a building, eight apartments to a building, we're told.

We're going to continue on here. Take a look at this. This is the Virginia Beach Middle School, just about a third of a mile away from this crash site. But we are told students were on spring break. So -- but you do have this middle school just blocks away from the scene of this crash.

Heading forward now, in the same direction, you can see just about how close this was, about a mile from the ocean, where they could have conceivably ditched the plane, and, again, Virginia Beach, this is an area very heavily populated, especially this time of year, with vacationers. That only about a mile away from where the crash occurred, Joe.

So you get a sense of just the population center here, the schools nearby, the neighborhoods nearby, what could have conceivably happened, but also just how close they were to maybe potentially being able to ditch that plane in the ocean.

JOHNS: I know. You -- when you think about it, you have spring break going in some places. You have Good Friday.

TODD: That's right.

JOHNS: You have Passover. All of these things could have contributed to a lot of people in the area.

Let me ask you one other thing, Brian. And that is about the carbon fibers in the smoke. Now, we know that firefighters have apparatus to breathe air. But is this smoke toxic?

Is that the concern, as you understand it?

TODD: It is the concern. From what we've heard from just about everybody from this scene, and people, also, including former Navy pilots. This is a different kind of fuel. It's highly combustible. The smoke is very toxic. You heard that the -- the fire battalion chief there in Virginia Beach said that's his main concern, the carbon fibers from that smoke, containing the smoke at the scene.

Now, you look at some of those live aerial pictures, it looks like they may have contained a lot of that smoke at the scene. But again, remember what the mayor said just a few minutes ago. They've only gone through two of the five buildings. And the three buildings that they have yet to go through may be the most devastated buildings of them all. So, again, keep a close eye on these casualty figures. Everybody is saying that they're very thankful, of course, that right now, at the moment, no reports of fatalities. That could very well change. Only two buildings have been completely gone through by first responders, two of the five buildings hit at this point.

JOHNS: That's for sure, because those numbers have slowly but steadily gone up...

TODD: That's right.

JOHNS: -- from two to seven, now to nine, all non-life threatening, at least according to the mayor. We're hoping to get an update from him in about 15 minutes or so there from the scene.

So thanks so much for your reporting, Brian. And we'll keep checking back with you.

TODD: Thank you.

JOHNS: There are some concerns that this may have been a disaster waiting to happen.

CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, taking a closer look at the pressure to close this Navy base due to heavy housing development in the area -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Joe, at one time, Oceana was farmland in rural Virginia. As we see from the video today, heavily populated with homes and businesses, very crowded. The Navy still operates here, with one of its major training squadrons on the East Coast.

But back in 2003, 2005, the Base Closure Commission of the federal government, which looks at trying to shut down military bases, recommended Oceana be shut down because of encroaching development, because there was too much housing too close to the base.

That set off a political firestorm. Many Virginia politicians wanted to keep the base open. It brings, of course, economic development to the area. And the Navy said it was the only economically viable option for that East Coast training squadron.

So Oceana has remained open over the years, even as the housing got closer and closer to the base.

And what we saw today is the reality of U.S. military operations trying to coexist in residential and business areas across this country. You know, this is what goes on. They practice at Oceana for their carrier landings and they fly almost daily. It depends on the training cycle, but people in that neighborhood will tell you, they hear Navy jets all the time. They're quite used to it.

Hopefully, today, they've avoided complete disaster.

But still, that final word to come on what has happened to the people on the ground -- Joe.

JOHNS: Yes, it certainly could create another controversy. But we've seen that before, people basically voting their pocketbooks. And at a time when the economy is just not so good, it would be hard to see how people would want their jobs to move somewhere else.

STARR: Well, that's exactly right, especially in Virginia, where the U.S. military has a large presence, as it does in places like California, Texas, Florida, these become very significant, political issues. Small businesses grow up around military bases, shopping centers, housing development, real estate. The military is a lifeline for so many communities.

Just think about U.S. -- the U.S. Army in Texas, at Fort Bliss, at Fort Hood. There are massive economic questions for the communities around these areas. If the military goes away, they -- they lose out economically. And the military doesn't want to be isolated from America. It wants Americans to coexist in communities. It wants Americans to know who they are and what they do.

So this is very tough. They have to be able to operate safely. And -- and what we're learning today is there have been a lot of questions about Oceana over the years because of the changing structure and the changing environment around the base -- once farmland, now very heavy development, as we saw today.

JOHNS: But for the record, Barbara, it looks like there haven't been a lot of problems with planes out there. And there haven't appeared to have been a lot of problems with this particular plane.

STARR: No. Listen, you know, that's a really good point, Joe. I mean the Navy certainly tries, and does succeed as much as possible, the great majority of the flights perfectly safe. People often complain about the noise. But the Navy, the Air Force, the military generally operates very safely, even in these populated areas.

JOHNS: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Thanks so much for that.

We are waiting for a news conference from the mayor of Virginia Beach, along with Navy officials, after the break.

And I talk with a witness who saw the crash as it happened. Her minute by minute account just ahead.

Plus, we're taking a closer look at the accident site and signs the pilots may have made life-saving decisions to crash the plane where they did.

And while the Pentagon tries to cut billions of dollars from the budget, the Defense secretary is flying home on almost $1 million of your money.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: We're standing by for a press conference by the mayor of Virginia Beach and navy officials. We'll go straight to it when it starts, but right now, let's get a little bit more with Rob Waldman who is a decorated former air force fighter pilot. And Rob, as we wait for this news conference in Virginia Beach with the mayor, I'd like to ask you to give me some idea what it's like to fly a jet like this, this two-seater F-18.

LT. COL. ROB "WALDO" WALDMAN, FORMER F-16 FIGHTER PILOT: It's intense. And it requires an amazing amount of training. I think what you saw today was a perfect example of how training can be put to use.

I mean, you're dealing with multimillion dollar machines, complicated weapons systems, just tough situations to operate in, and when they have that malfunction which will be reviewed and they'll discover the source of that, they'll have to act instantaneously, and the training was put to use.

And I think it really save lives, and ultimately, will save money and improve the reputation of the military in the long run.

JOHNS: We've heard so much about the checklist that pilots go through in situations like this. What would be going through your mind if you started seeing a malfunction on the job?

WALDMAN: Well, what happens is before you strap into that plane with the wingman behind you or solo, you've rehearsed it. You've chair flown it. You've in a simulator in a chair going through the systems over and over and over again.

Now, in the heat of battle, in the heat of an emergency, you will likely forget something, but the key is when you train with intensity when the emergency happens, you respond, and --

JOHNS: All right. Rob?

WALDMAN: Yes, sir?

JOHNS: I'm going to have to jump in. Let me jump in on you right now because the mayor of Virginia Beach is starting his news conference right now. Let's listen.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

CAPTAIN MASK WEISGERBER, U.N. NAVY: -- heroic acts. I've gone far to help reduce the impact of today's crash and tragedy. And finally, to make it clear that the navy is offering all resources to the city of Virginia Beach to help it in the aftermath of today's incident. I wanted to give a brief a brief summary of what happened today. Shortly afternoon, we had a training flight. They had two seat F-18 hornet take off from Naval Air Station Oceana.

Shortly after takeoff, initial indications are that that aircraft suffered a catastrophic, mechanical malfunction, the specifics of which I don't want to speculate on. However, it resulted in the forced ejection of that air crew. Both of those air crew ejected safely. The front seater was a student pilot. The back seater was an experienced instructor.

It resulted in their forced ejection and the loss of the aircraft which impacted over my right shoulder here, and with that, I can take a couple of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've heard that a bird may have been sucked into the engine of the aircraft upon takeoff. Did the pilots give any indication of anything like that occurring?

WEISGERBER: No, sir. This time, we have no indications of a bird. And again, all we know is that there was a mechanical malfunction shortly after takeoff, and that's really all we know at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is this a training mission?

WEISGERBER: Yes. Most of the flying that we do here at Naval Air Station Oceana is directly related to training in preparation for the efforts that we do have in this week (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were reports of eyewitnesses that they saw a jet fuel coming from the plane. Was that designed? Did they let go of jet fuel early in order to prevent this apart from being bigger when the plane crashed?

WEISGERBER: No. The indication of that jet fuel is one of the eyewitness accounts that we heard as well and that's one of those indications that there was a mechanical malfunction that's leading us down that road. Again, that's initial assessment.

There will be a full investigation, as always, as there is in any aircraft mishap, and we will very thoroughly determine what happened today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is the crew?

WEISGERBER: The crew is doing well. They suffered some minor injuries, and the latest report is that they're up and about and both coherent and doing well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are they local? WEISGERBER: They do both live here in Virginia Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this the first crash locally involving an F/A-18 aircraft?

WEISGERBER: It's the -- I'm not fully prepared to answer that. It's the only one in recent history in the local area over land.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you define student pilot? When you say student pilot --

WEISGERBER: The squadron now was involved, the strike fighter squadron 106. They're one of the navy's three fleet replacement squadrons. This is where the navy teaches, our F-18 pilots, essentially, for very first time in the fleet with the representative aircraft. So, their syllabus goes from basic flying to advanced tactics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys train very much for a scenario like this, and you do it with Virginia Beach first responders quite a bit. You had an exercise easily. Certainly, a lot of that must have come into play today and helped out here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly, in fact, some month and a half ago, we had a full Virginia Beach Fire Department company in service and coordination with our military DOD assets here in the area, and we ran every company through how we would operate in this sort of incident, and obviously, that training has paid off for us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chief __, how far have your firefighters been able to get into the damaged buildings?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We made access into every building for a primary search, we call it. We are now making sure that we've mitigated the debris field as best we can, and we're going to do a secondary search operation from there. Obviously, first priority was fire control at some 40 units burning and got that fire under control in roughly an hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you reasonably confident at this point that there are no fatalities in this incident?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have none reported to us that we're aware of at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any people missing? Have any missing persons reports?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly, with the number of occupants in this size of a complex, there are people that we're still trying to track down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fuel, the fire, the wind, what was the biggest challenge to firefighters today?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously, fire spread and exposed buildings. (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have been added little complaints that, perhaps, maybe these planes are flying too close to civilian areas. How would you respond to some of the folks that have been concerned about that?

WEISGERBER: I would not comment on that. Today's focus, really, is to talk about the events of the mishap today. And again, to express our -- the gratitude of the navy and the continued cooperation between the United States navy and the city of Virginia Beach to keep something like this from happening again in the future.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your view on that, because I know you worked a lot with the navy here recently to try to prevent encroachment upon the facility there.

MAYOR WILL SESSOMS, VIRGINIA BEACH: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your assessment right now of the proximity of all of this population to businesses and residents to the air base?

SESSOMS: The navy has always been a tremendous part of our city, and it is a vital part of our city and that is going to continue to sit back and see how the navy and the city have worked together through this tragic situation. It's very, very impressive.

What I'm thinking about now is that we don't find any victims. So far, we've been very lucky. We got to go through a few more buildings that the chief said, and that's what's on my mind right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And there are private citizens of Virginia Beach who stepped up, actually helped to rescue the piles --

SESSOMS: Let me say to you, you know, out of all bad comes some good and never have I ever been so proud of our police, fire, EMS, the navy, the state, the citizens of Virginia Beach out here helping to move fire hoses. That shows you the quality of the people in the city and that they really care and they're helping each other, and for that, I am most grateful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you give us any idea of what you do in the circumstances (INAUDIBLE).

WEISGERBER: We go through extensive emergency procedure training and certainly is a part of a continuum that goes on throughout our entire career. In the case of catastrophic malfunctions, we do have emergency procedures.

There's no indication that the air crew were able to do anything other than have a forced ejection today. And again, that will be part of the full investigation that goes on both from the safety and the legal round from today's --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you aware of how many times the student pilot had actually been in the air?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have one more question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you aware of how many times the student pilot had actually been in the air?

WEISGERBER: I am not. However, the instructor pilot was extremely experienced.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chief, as an experienced first responder, you just had a jet fighter crash (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're truly blessed by that. I think, in fact, the folks doing the right thing before our assets got here, and we hope they will continue to do the right thing. If they find pieces of the aircraft, we would ask that they not touch them, that they will call our 311 line here in the city. We'll partner with our naval partners, and we'll make sure that it's rectified.

We with would like people to stay away from the area if at all possible, and if anybody has residents that live in these Mayfair apartments, we would ask that you certainly call the 311 number as well so we can track those folks down.

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: So, there you go. A news conference in Virginia each giving us just a bit of new information, probably, the most significant piece of information there is a representative of the United States navy on the scene essentially calling this a catastrophic mechanical malfunction of the aircraft.

This was a two-seater F-18, we're told, and we're also told that there was a pilot in training in the front of the aircraft and an instructor in the back. The mayor, there you saw, of Virginia Beach saying they've been very, very lucky there, so far, with the reports of casualties and injuries.

Now, let's talk a little bit to Lt. Col. Rob "Waldo" Waldman. I was just talking to you before that news conference began. They're describing this as a catastrophic malfunction. That much seems clear. What did you take away from this news conference?

WALDMAN: Well, I definitely took away the community and the training. I mean, in a situation like this, obviously, the pilots have got to react to avoid as much damage and as much possibility of a casualty. When the accident happens, you're low altitude, the first thing you do in your training is you turn that altitude or that airspeed into altitude.

And you maintain the aircraft control. You analyze the situation. You take proper action, and then, you land as soon as conditions permit. Now, in this situation, they didn't have a landing strip to land on so they had to make a choice. Either stay with the plane or eject, and as we're trained we have to eject in the area that will minimize casualties, and as I said, it's a very, very populated area. I am sure the pilots were very, very confident that they were putting it down in the best area where it would minimize any extra casualties.

If they could have taken it out into the ocean they would have, but quick actions, I guarantee save lives, and it's great just to watch the community come together, as the mayor said, be a bunch of great wingmen and serve without having to be in uniform, obviously.

JOHNS: Now, this was a training flight. They've admitted that. And, as I just reported, we had the training pilot in the front, the instructor in the back. Describe for our viewers how typical that is with a new pilot learning how to fly.

WALDMAN: It's very, very typical now. Mind you, the folks that are flying in the plane, there's a very experienced instructor pilot in the back and a student in the front. They already have their wings. They're already qualified to fly. Now, oftentimes, they're getting checked out in that particular aircraft, getting what we call M.R., mission ready.

Now, before they even step into the plane, they've gone into simulators. They've practiced it on the ground. They rehearsed it in their mind over and over again. The instructor pilot has questioned and challenged that individual. And if they aren't ready on the ground, they don't fly.

So, ultimately, because this was a student, that individual in the back, the man or woman that was a commander of that aircraft had to make decisions. They make split second decisions. They follow through and they react just as they trained on the ground.

JOHNS: In that kind of a scenario, does the instructor pilot have the power to take over control of the plane if, say, the student pilot is doing something wrong?

WALDMAN: Absolutely. They are trained and that -- that discipline, that in-flight discipline is critical, and if that student doesn't follow those procedures and have the discipline, they don't make it through the program. So, these are pre-qualifications before you step into that jet.

And as an instructor, in particular, during very dangerous situations on takeoff and landing, when you're close to the ground, when split-second decisions need to happen very fast because the ground will kill you, obviously, the training has to be very, very, very strict and comply with it at all times.

JOHNS: Now, obviously, we'd be speculating just a bit, but I do have to ask you, given what we know about this and also the fact that there were flames seen coming out of the right side of the plane, how likely is it, based on what we know, that this was operator error? WALDMAN: You know, one thing about the military, we have to keep in mind, is that you have to be very, very careful not to draw conclusions. They're going to have a safety investigation board, a lot of smart people are going to break this whole scenario apart from beginning to end, they're going to look at the machinery, look at all the wreckage and find a solution to this problem.

There is always a possibility of operator error. This is a human being or human beings flying aircraft. But for example, with flame, the aircraft may have been an afterburner trying to gain thrust to get out of the area, then there have been a fuel problem. There may have been something else going wrong. So it's very, very important to let the safety investigation board do their job with the first responders, put together a great solution to this puzzle, and I guarantee the training and the discipline will come to fruition and we're going to see a good answer to this tragic event.

JOHNS: Lieutenant Colonel Rob Waldman, thanks so much for coming and we appreciate you insights and for hanging around through that news conference.

WALDMAN: Proud to be here. Thank you.

JOHNS: Much more ahead. We're going to talk to a woman who actually witnessed the crash. She saw the plane nosedive, quote, "with flames under the right wing."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: New signs the pilots may have made some critical life- saving decisions in the moments before that horrific crash in Virginia beach.

CNN's Chad Myers joining us now with that part of the story -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Joe, it's not really all that uncommon for ejection seats to actually go off. These thins have gone off now counting 12,000 times in the -- in the course of flight.

This is from NASA. This is called a 00 ejection. This pilot is sitting on the tarmac. That's a real pilot in there. Now we're going fire it off. The pilot goes 200 feet into the sky. So even if the plane is sitting on the tarmac, the pilot goes into the sky, gets shot like a rocket into the sky. All the way up to the top, when he finally reaches the top or the peak of this, the ejection seat here a little bit tilted to the -- to the floor, it shouldn't be that way, but that's OK, this is just a NASA picture. And then all of a sudden explodes here into the parachute opening, and in fact the pilot here being released from the seat.

We saw that seat earlier, the pilot landing on the ground safely with literally no elevation to start with. He was sitting on the ground. That's an F-18 ejection seat -- Joe.

JOHNS: Wow. But it's still not optimal to be very close to the ground, I would think. It's probably much better to be firing one of those things when you're at altitude, safer, at least, for the pilot, yes?

MYERS: Of course. And less things to run into when you have a moment in time to steer a little bit when all of a sudden if you're on the ground as close as they were, the ejection seat going off, there may have been trees, power lines, poles, anything, any kind of -- any kind of radio transmission towers probably higher than they were at this point.

JOHNS: Great. Thanks so much for that, Chad, in Atlanta.

Joining us now on the phone, Amy Miller. She witnessed this crash first hand.

And Amy, tell us what you saw.

AMY MILLER, WITNESS: Yes, sir. I work at S. Ray Barrett Cleaners in the little birdneck shops right up the road. I had just gotten the word that I was going in at 12:00 and I was standing right outside speaking with the manager, we were doing a shift change, we heard the plane which you don't think much of, we hear that noise all the time. But I look up and when I look up I see a plane coming down low at an angle, and I could see flames around the wing.

I actually saw them eject and the parachutes open and the plane go down, and of course, my boss ran in to call 911, and I started running home to check on my family.

JOHNS: When you say you saw flames around the wing, was it around the tip of the wing or near the engine?

MILLER: Near the body of the plane.

JOHNS: And would it be the right side of the plane as if you were one of the pilots or the right side of the plane as you were looking at it from your vantage point.

MILLER: As if you were a passenger on the right side because I was on the opposite side of the road and it was coming from the east toward the ocean front, and it was coming down at an -- at an angle.

JOHNS: And was this a lot of flames?

MILLER: So I can see the flames underneath.

JOHNS: I'm sorry. A lot of flames?

MILLER: I mean -- it's not like engulfed, I would call it. I could just see flames underneath the -- right there at the wing, close to the body.

JOHNS: And you saw the pilots eject. Tell us a little bit more about what that looked like.

MILLER: It's just like something shot up from the plane as it was coming down at an angle and the parachute opened and as if they were going off to the right of where the plane actually went down.

JOHNS: Any way for you to tell how high the plane was flying when the pilots ejected?

MILLER: Oh, it was not very high at all. It was already pretty low because I said to my boss -- I said that plane's not just really low, it's about to crash, and I could see the flame, so --

JOHNS: And --

MILLER: Before I could even think.

JOHNS: Right.

MILLER: If that thought process -- they popped out, the thing opened and it went down.

JOHNS: Can you give me some sense as to whether the plane hit the building before the pilots ended up on the ground?

MILLER: No. They ejected before the plane hit anything.

JOHNS: Right, but my question to you is did the pilots get safely to the ground before the plane hit or did the plane fly on and hit before they -- those pilots got on the ground?

MILLER: I'm not sure because once I saw the parachutes open and the plane went down out of sight I couldn't see where anything landed or anything. I couldn't even tell exactly which complex it had hit. There are several of them here. And I actually work on one side of where this happened and live on the other side within a two-block radius so --

JOHNS: I see. I think, Chad Myers, you have a question?

MILLER: My thoughts was to take off, running toward the scene so I could see if my family was OK.

JOHNS: OK. I want to bring Chad Myers in. Did you have a question, Chad?

MYERS: Amy, we've had, by far, you are the most credible and amazing witness when you said the plane was tilting or listing to the right, and the ejection seats actually went off to the right. We've had other people say that they believe they saw fuel coming from the plane, like almost like losing fuel off the bottom of the plane. Did you see anything like that?

MILLER: I would say that with it happening so fast and me paying attention to the flames and the parachutes, I cannot tell you if any -- if any gas was coming out or not. Honestly can't.

MYERS: OK. Joe?

MILLER: I don't know if they had released any fuel because just watching the flames, the plane going down and them come out and the parachutes open was just -- I was just in shock, and then I took off running.

MYERS: Amy, thank you. And Joe --

JOHNS: Yes.

MYERS: What I heard today the public information officer say in that press conference just a little bit ago that they are looking closely at that report of the flame and also of the fuel possibly coming out because if fuel was coming out that could have been part of the catastrophic failure that that information officer was talking about.

JOHNS: Thanks, Chad. And I also just want to throw in the hospital now indicating to CNN and others that everyone who they know of who was injured in this terrible accident has been treated and released except for one crew member. So once again, a bit of good news on this Good Friday on that.

And Amy Miller, we want to thank you so much for sticking with us. But I think probably, the bottom line question for you and coming from that area, you've probably seen a lot of planes fly over head. Have you ever seen or would you have ever expected to see anything like this happening?

MILLER: Certainly never expected to see anything like this happen. No. Absolutely not. I mean, people complain about the noise and understandably and you can even feel it shake from time to time living here where I live, but to think that you would actually see one go down. I mean, I was literally standing across the street. It felt like it was yards away from me. I mean just to stand there and see that in person was crazy.

JOHNS: Right. A chilling scene Amy Miller describes. Thank you so much for that and we're glad you're safe.

MILLER: No problem.

JOHNS: There are some other important news we're following today, while the Pentagon tries to cut billions of dollars from the budget, the defense secretary is frequently flying home on almost $1 million of your money. We'll explain after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: Imagine working in Washington Monday through Friday then flying home almost every weekend to California. That's a weekly ritual for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and get this, he does it for the most part on the taxpayers' dime.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is back with that story.

Double duty for you today, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Joe. Well, you know, look, here at the Pentagon it's all about cutting the budget, trying to save billions of dollars so why are taxpayers paying nearly $1 million for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to fly home on the weekend?

We mapped it all out for you. Here's what's going on right now. Since Panetta took office he's flown home to California 27 times since last July. Look at the map. He starts off here in the Washington, D.C. area, Andrews Air Force Base, flies across the country and back to his home in Monterey, California. The plane costs $3200 an hour to fly. Why? Well, Secretary Panetta, of course, is one of the key members of the national security community.

Under government regulation he must have secure communications, he must have his secure team and he has to have this structure around him so he has to be on a government plane. He can't fly ValuJet or JetBlue like you and me. So that's why the cost. He has reimbursed the government $17,000, but the government has picked up $860,000 of that tab so far because it's a military plane.

His spokesman says -- George Little tells us, quote, "No one understands the budget pressures on the Pentagon better than Secretary Panetta, who is responsible for identifying nearly $1 billion dollars per week in defense cuts or roughly $140 million per day over the next 10 years."

But listen to what this watchdog group says about Secretary Panetta's spending.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE ELLIS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: He understands better than most people about the budget pressures and the issues and the fact that we've got a $15 trillion debt. And so at the same -- to see the same individual then going and spending tens of thousands of dollars flying back home every weekend, it really sort of boggles the mind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: Many people will tell you it is not about the fact that he has to be on a secure jet and have those communications. Everyone understands it. The question on the table is how much personal travel should he be engaging in to go home on the weekends with the government having under regulation to pick up so much of the tab -- Joe.

JOHNS: And, Barbara, you know, when you look at this thing, the other thing that comes to my mind is if the defense secretary is flying commercial he might also be sort of a danger for other passengers because he could become a target if he was vulnerable, though. Is that part of the argument?

STARR: Well, since 9/11 it has been the case that key members of the administration such as the defense secretary, the secretary of state -- and Secretary Clinton also goes home to New York on some weekends -- they have to be on a government plane. They have to have security.

JOHNS: Got it. Great. Thanks so much for that reporting once again, Barbara Starr.

STARR: Sure.

JOHNS: More trouble for Marion Barry. The D.C. city councilman and former mayor once caught on tape smoking crack is now under fire for shocking new comments about Asian-owned businesses.

Plus, a famous African-American film and television producer claims he was racially profiled. Ahead, the incident Tyler Perry is calling a situation that could have turned for the worse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: Atlanta Police are investigating a claim by producer and actor Tyler Perry that he was racially profiled by two officers.

CNN entertainment correspondent Kareen Wynter joining us now with that -- Kareen.

KAREEN WINTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joe, this is a story that's definitely not going away. It actually started with an open letter that Hollywood filmmaker and movie star, Tyler Perry, he posted on -- posted it on Facebook. And it got a whole lot of traction really fast, Joe.

Within hours more than 10,000 Facebook users had liked Perry's posting, a number which has grown to well over 100,000 with more than 20,000 comments. Atlanta Police just launched an internal investigation into what happened during Perry's recent traffic stop just days before Perry hosted President Obama at his Atlanta studio.

Now the star claims he was racially profiled by two white police officers who pulled him over as he was driving to the airport. Perry says things got, quote, "hostile" and that he was so confused because since he says he did nothing wrong here, nothing illegal.

Here's some of what he wrote on his Facebook page about that tense encounter. "The officer on the driver's side continue to badger me. It was happening so fast that I could easily see how this situation could get out of hand very quickly. I didn't feel safe at all, but one officer stopped his questioning and said we may not let you go."

Perry also described what happened next when another official on the scene, a black officer, recognized his famous face. He wrote, "He took one look at me and had that oh, no, look on his face. He immediately took both officers to the back of my car and spoke to them in a hushed tone. After that, one of the officers stayed near his car while one came back very apologetic."

Joe, Perry also made reference to the controversial Trayvon Martin case writing that, although there has been significant strides with racial profiling in this country, he believes the world needs to know this is still happening and that, quote, "Until the situation has improved greatly I'm not sure how a murder in Florida can be protected by a "Stand Your Ground' law." Now as for Atlanta Police, Joe, I contacted them again today. And just to be clear here detectives aren't yet calling this a racial profiling case. They've simply launched an internal investigation into the matter. Officers there tell me they're looking into whether Perry's claims can be substantiated and whether any policies or procedures with the department were violated during the stop.

I also just confirmed, Joe, none of the officers have been placed on leave -- Joe.

JOHNS: Interesting case there, Tyler Perry certainly has a lot of fans, and I think Atlanta Police just finding that out now. Thanks so much.

WYNTER: Absolutely.

JOHNS: Former D.C. mayor, Marion Barry, once caught on tape smoking crack is in hot water again for something he said about Asians.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: Marion Barry is in hot water again. He's a former Washington, D.C. mayor and current city councilman. Several years ago he was caught on tape smoking crack. More recently he's had run-ins with the IRS. Now, shocking remarks about Asian-owned businesses.

Here's CNN's Athena Jones.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Washington, D.C. council member Marion Barry's latest dust-up came at his re-election victory party when he criticized Asian-owned shops in his low-income majority black neighborhood in southeast Washington.

MARION BARRY, D.C. COUNCIL MEMBER: These are neighborhood shopping centers, we got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses with dirty shops. They ought to go. I'm just stating that right now. You know? We need African-American business people to be able to take their places, too.

JONES: Asian and black leaders blasted Barry. Once known as a fighter for civil rights what they called racially decisive remarks. Barry later apologized for what he said was a bad choice of words. We caught up with the former four-term mayor him in his ward.

BARRY: And I said something that I probably could have phrased it differently, but the meaning is the same. We're not going to have people who exploit us in this community. They're going to be a part of the community. We welcome all business people here and we want you to participate, but give us some jobs.

JONES: Barry's comments have touched a nerve.

HELEN LEE, RESTAURANT OWNER: Yes. I was very mad, mad to him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We work really hard to keep our facility clean and to serve this community. We've been here for over 20 years now. So it's really insulting for him to come out of the blue and say that we're dirty and that, you know, we should be replaced basically because we've been here for so long.

BARRY: She's mad at me. Tell her to put some money in this community, have some people in in community.

JONES: Perhaps best known for the 1990 federal drug sting that caught him smoking crack in a hotel room, more recently Barry was sentenced to probation for failing to file tax returns. Still, he remains extraordinarily popular and defiant.

(On camera): You're not a stranger to controversy. It seems like every few years there's something -- some story out. How does that make you feel? Why do you think that is?

BARRY: Well, because I'm doing such a great job. I'm doing a fantastic job. My -- my political enemies, they hate us and other kinds of people. They have to find something to do. Attack Marion Barry. That's all. They ought to do something else.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Marion Barry told me his record as a civil rights leader is well-known. He has a great deal of support in the Asian community, and he stands by his complaint that Asian store owners need to hire more local workers and be more a part of their community -- Joe.

JOHNS: Athena Jones in Washington, D.C., thanks so much for that.

And thanks for joining us. I'm Joe Johns in for Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.