NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Waitress Chena Hill reached one quick conclusion after watching an F-14 Tomcat's dreadful descent into a cluster of Nashville homes.

The pilot was a hero.

Navy investigators may take months to determine why Lt. Cmdr. John Stacy Bates' fighter crashed after takeoff Monday.

They spent the week at the crash site, collecting pieces of the $35 million jet in boxes to be reassembled in their search for the cause.

Hill, 24, serving breakfast at the Waffle House on Monday morning, watched as the fighter jet circled over a tightly packed area that encompassed busy Interstate 24, a dozen apartment complexes, several motels, more than 10 office buildings and an elementary school. It seemed barely a couple of hundred yards away, she said.

Although the wing tips were see-sawing back and forth, Hill thought the pilot had enough control to eject.

But Bates, 33, didn't leave his plane, which crashed into a front yard and plowed through the home of Elmer Newson, 66, and his wife Ada, 63. The Newsoms died, along with a visitor, Ewing T. Wair, 53; Bates; and his radar officer, Lt. Graham Alden Higgins, 28.

``You could tell these people were trying to keep from hitting a populated area. They could have ejected,'' Hill said. ``I think this man should be recognized not for wrecking this plane but for saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.''

The first solid reports from on-scene investigators may bear Hill out.

``To be honest with you, we don't see any attempts at ejection. And that's very initial,'' Rear Adm. Skip Dirren, commander of the Naval Safety Center, said Thursday.

``When you look at an ejection seat, you can see whether things have been pulled to commence ejection. And on initial investigation, we don't see that,'' he said.

Bates, based at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, had spent the weekend with his parents in Nashville, where they had gone backstage after a Grand Ole Opry show that featured Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe and Marty Stuart.

When Bates said goodbye Monday morning, he told them to check his takeoff on their way home to Chattanooga.

His sleek F-14 roared down the runway and rocketed away in a high-speed, steeply angled launch, for which he had special clearance. Navy investigators will not say whether they believe the high-performance takeoff was a factor in the crash.

It's one of many factors being weighed as the Navy tries to explain what went wrong _ for the families of the victims as well as for the pilots of other F-14 fighters.

Shortly after Bates took off, Hill and several customers saw the low-flying jet making an irregular rocking motion as it banked into a left turn back toward Nashville International Airport.

``He was turning around and trying to get back to the airport. When he realized he couldn't make the airport, he tried to get to that open field,'' she said.

``It scared me half to death. Everybody in here started crying.''

Teachers and pupils at nearby Paragon Mills Elementary School practice plane crash drills along with fire and tornado drills, physical education teacher Terry Sensing said.

Bates' jet rattled windows and doors at the school, with 540 students in third through sixth grades, when it passed over Monday, Sensing said.

He rushed outside in time to see a fireball billow up from the crash.

``I'm sure the pilot could have ejected. But I think he fought it as long as he could,'' Sensing said.

On Tuesday, the day after the crash, children and teachers on the playground looked up each time a plane passed over.

``That's reality,'' Sensing said. ``And yesterday, we had a reality check.''