Seven people, including both pilots, were injured, officials said. The Navy said both aviators on board the jet ejected before it crashed around noon and were being taken to hospitals for observation.
Bruce Nedelka, the Virginia Beach EMS division chief, said that witnesses saw fuel being dumped from the jet before it went down, and that fuel was found on buildings and vehicles in the area.
"By doing so, he mitigated what could have been an absolute massive, massive fireball and fire," Nedelka said. "With all of that jet fuel dumped, it was much less than what it could have been."
The crash happened in the Hampton Roads area, which has a large concentration of military bases, including Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. Naval Air Station Oceana, where the F/A-18D that crashed was assigned, is located in Virginia Beach.
Live video from WAVY-TV showed dozens of police cars, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles filling the densely populated neighborhood where the plane crashed. Yellow fire hoses snaked through side streets as fire crews poured water on the charred rooftops of brick apartment houses.
Three buildings were destroyed, and two more had significant damage, Virginia Beach fire department spokesman Tim Riley told WVEC-TV.
The fire had been put out, Nedelka said, and now crews were going through the buildings to search for anyone who may have been inside.
Virginia Beach Fire Department Capt. Tim Riley told WAVY-TV that seven people were injured, including three who refused treatment. Four people, including the pilots, were transported to the local hospital, where all had non life-threatening injuries.
Damage was contained to five buildings, he said. He said crews have yet to hear from anyone about missing loved ones. All but six units had been searched for anyone who may have been inside.
Residents of the apartment complex described a confusing scene and an apologetic pilot.
Colby Smith said his house started shaking and then the power went out, as he saw a red and orange blaze outside his window. He ran outside, where he saw billowing black smoke and then came upon the pilot as he ran to a friend's home.
"I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood," Smith told WVEC-TV.
"The pilot said, `I'm sorry for destroying your house."'
Smith said he and another man helped the pilot onto the street.
Joanie Coleman said she heard several explosions and saw the black smoke. She picked up her bag and ran around behind the apartment, where people were tending to the pilot.
"He fell onto someone's patio," she said. "... He was in shock and he apologized to the person who was trying to help him. He said, `I'm sorry I landed in your back yard."'
A multicolored parachute could be seen hanging from the roof of an apartment closest to the crash center.
As authorities closed roads in the neighborhood, traffic backed up on side streets and on nearby Interstate 264, with slow-moving columns of vehicles bringing drivers to a virtual standstill early Friday afternoon.
Edna Lukens, who works at the apartment complex across the street from the crash, said she saw three apartment buildings on fire.
"We heard this loud noise and we looked out the window and there was smoke all in the sky. Then the flames started going up in the sky, and then the apartment building just started burning and the police was called and everybody came out," Lukens said.
Lukens said a senior citizens' community was across the street, and people were trying to help them evacuate.
The Daily Press of Portsmouth reported that Sean Pepe of Norfolk and Kenny Carver of Hampton saw the jet as they were driving on Interstate 264. They said it appeared to be "floating" in the air before it went down behind trees.
"It was odd, but we didn't think anything of it," Pepe told the newspaper. "We thought it was doing maneuvers. We were watching the plane but didn't see the impact. We saw it go down and there was a `boom.' Then there was black smoke everywhere."
Gov. Bob McDonnell said the state is providing immediate resources and assistance on the ground and working with Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms.
The same model of fighter jet, an F/A-18D, crashed in December 2008 while returning to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar after a training exercise in a San Diego neighborhood. That crash killed four members of one family and destroyed two homes.
The Marine Corps said the jet suffered a mechanical failure, but a series of bad decisions led the pilot -- a student -- to bypass a potentially safe landing at a coastal Navy base after his engine failed. The pilot ejected and told investigators he screamed in horror as he watched the jet plow into the neighborhood, incinerating two homes. A federal judge ordered the U.S. government to pay the family nearly $18 million in restitution.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Steve Szkotak, Michael Felberbaum and Dena Potter in Richmond; Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C.; and Pam Ramsey in Charleston, W.Va.