- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

LITTLE EGG HARBOR, N.J. (AP) — The night custodian was going about her rounds when she heard the patter of what sounded like footsteps on the roof of the Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School. She thought someone might be running atop the building, but police found nothing.

The next morning, authorities realized what had made the sound: the impact of 20 mm rounds fired by a National Guard F-16 fighter on a nighttime training flight over a target range four miles away.

The incident 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.

“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,” Mr. 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.”

The National Guard is still investigating what it describes as an accidental release of gunfire. Results are expected in about two weeks.

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 in Maryland, was streaking across the sky in his fighter 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 20 mm 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., told reporters 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.”

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.”

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