WASHINGTON - Marine Corps generals yesterday defended the decision to direct a jet pilot over a crowded San Diego neighborhood after an engine on his F/A18-D Hornet failed.

It couldn't be predicted that the second engine on the jet also would fail, forcing the pilot to eject and bringing the aircraft down onto a two-story home where it killed four people, the generals said at a closed congressional briefing, according to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who attended.

In the wake of Monday's crash, some have questioned why the jet didn't divert toward a coastal air station instead of continuing over neighborhoods toward Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

A number of factors made Miramar the right call at the time, according to the briefers, who included Maj. Gen. Robert Schmidle.

They emphasized that double-engine failure is extraordinarily rare, and that the F/A 18-D is designed to be able to operate on one engine. As for why both engines failed, there's no answer to that yet. *