LITTLE EGG HARBOR, N.J. – The strafing of a school by a National Guard F-16 fighter jet (search) has divided residents of the fast-growing region around the Warren Grove Gunnery Range. Some fear for their safety, while others consider it profoundly unpatriotic to question the military during a time of war.
The National Guard (search) is still investigating what it describes as an accidental release of gunfire. Results are expected in about two weeks.
The night custodian of the Little Egg Harbor Intermediate (search) School was going about her rounds when she heard the patter of what sounded like footsteps on the roof. She thought someone might be running atop the building, but police found nothing. The next morning, authorities realized what had made the sound: 20mm rounds fired by the F-16 during a nighttime training flight over a target range four miles away.
"Had it missed the school and hit one of our houses, we'd be talking about dead bodies now," said Township Committeeman Arthur Midgley. "We can't have this. This must never happen again."
But Terry Hickman, a 10-year Army special forces veteran, defended the range and the pilots who train there.
"Let 'em alone; they're over there putting their lives on the line for us," Hickman said as he prepared to hunt deer in Bass River, near the edge of the range. "That guy (the pilot) probably feels so bad about this. He's probably going to get sent overseas and he might not even come back. As long as no one got hurt, this whole thing should just be forgotten."
According to the military, at 9:02 p.m. on Nov. 3, a veteran pilot from the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia National Guard, based at Andrews Air Force Base (search) in Maryland, was streaking across the sky 7,000 feet above the 9,416-acre range, which abuts parts of Little Egg Harbor, Stafford, Tuckerton and Bass River.
The pilot, a major whose name has not been released and who has been grounded pending the outcome of the inquiry, looked back over his shoulder for a split second, just as the wing-mounted gun fired a burst of 27 rounds. The 20mm cannon fires at a rate of about 6,000 rounds per minute.
The lead rounds followed an arcing trajectory that brought them to the ground four miles away. Eight bullets punched through the roof of the school and at least one lodged in a child's desk.
The pilot immediately radioed the tower that something had gone wrong and headed back to Andrews.
The range is shut down until the investigation is completed.
The pilot's commander, Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. Wherley, told reporters in Washington there were three possible explanations: plane malfunction, computer error or pilot error.
When the range was opened in 1942 during World War II, there were 2,000 people living nearby; now there are more than 50,000.
Lisamarie Saccomagno's daughter attends the school.
"Because we're at war now, I'm very sensitive to all the military's burdens," she said. "We all want to be safe and secure. But we're also concerned about our children. I'm afraid something's going to go wrong. We really need to know where those bullets are going."
National Guard officials pointedly invoked the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in trying to reassure residents and head off calls for the range to be permanently shut down.
"Think back in your memory to Sept. 11, when all the air traffic was grounded and the only sound you heard was our F-16s flying over New Jersey," Maria Falca-Dodson, the state National Guard's deputy adjutant general, said at a packed public meeting. "Much of the country all felt great comfort in the sounds and sights of those aircraft. What if on Sept. 11, we were all a volunteer group that only flew occasionally or twice a year?"
The Guard already has made several changes in pilot training, including requiring them to keep a safety on their weapons until they are over the range near their targets, and altering approach routes so any accidental gunfire is likely to land in sparsely populated woods west of the Garden State Parkway.
Many of the range's closest neighbors don't fear its operations. In May, Bill Neil and his family moved into a spacious new home just past the range's western boundary in Stafford. He said he's not concerned for his family's safety.
"It's kind of cool for the kids," he said. "They like hearing the planes."