- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

MILAN, Italy A small plane with only the pilot on board slammed into the 25th floor of a landmark skyscraper today, killing at least four people and injuring 60. The interior minister said the crash appeared to be an accident.
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Italian officials had told the United States that a mechanical problem not related to terrorism caused the crash. The pilot had sent out a distress call, saying he had landing gear problems.
Some eyewitnesses reported that the plane was on fire before hitting the 30-story building in the downtown area.
It was the second time since the September 11 terror attacks that a plane has struck a high-rise building, and today's crash, which occurred near the end of the work day, raised fears of another attack.
"It sounded like a bomb. The pavement shook like an earthquake," said a woman identifying herself only as Lucia.
The Rockwell Commander aircraft, en route from Switzerland on a 20-minute flight to Milan, punched a hole in the 25th floor, gutting two entire floors. Smoke poured out of the building, but firefighters quickly put out the flames. Rescuers helped bloodied men in business suits.
The weather was clear at the time of the crash, which left gaping holes on both sides of the slim skyscraper. A large section of an entire floor lost its walls, and smoke and liquid poured from the gash in one side of the building.
"The initial information that the Interior Ministry has leads us to lean toward an accident" as the cause, the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Interior Minister Claudio Scajola as saying.
The pilot had told Milan's Linate airport, the flight's destination, that the plane had landing gear problems, said Milan police officer Celerissimo De Simone.
He said the pilot sent out a distress call at 5:54 p.m. just before the crash near Milan's main train station.
"We believe it isn't a terrorist attack," said police Sgt. Vincenzo Curto, who was reached at the Carabinieri headquarters in Milan. "The pilot might have taken ill or it was an engine problem."
The plane "was in flames before it hit the building and it did not try to deviate its course, but just when straight in," said Fabio Sunik, a sports journalist who said he saw the plane smash into the skyscraper.
"Then I saw rubble falling from the building with all the smoking," said Mr. Sunik, who was standing in front of the central train station, some 200 yards from the crash.
Patrick Herr, spokesman for the Swiss air traffic control office SKYGUIDE, told AP that the plane left Locarno at 5:15 p.m.
In an interview with Swiss television, the country's consul in Milan, Marco Cameroni, said he believed the pilot was a Swiss citizen who lived in Ticino. He did not identify the man but said he believed he was the only person on board the aircraft.
Three hours after the crash, rescuers found a body on the 25th floor, raising the death toll to at least four, said Alessandra Tripodi, an official in the prefect's office. Three other bodies had been found earlier on the street outside the building.
"We're not sure if they (the three) fell from the building or were hit by falling debris," Ms. Tripodi said.
The pilot's fate was not immediately known.
Sixty people were injured, according to the prefect's office, which reports to the Interior Ministry.
Some people were rescued from elevators, ANSA reported.
An office worker who fled told AP that she saw 10 people injured and bleeding. She worked on the eighth floor, well below the impact area.
The force of the crash was felt elsewhere in the area.
"It was shocking," said Luccheta Antonio, 52, a barber down the block. "The windows shook and the mirrors."
Stefano Bottazzi, 35, works in a skyscraper 500 yards from building, said "the clock fell to the floor."
"It was a violent explosion," he said.
The scene in Milan mirrored the first moments of the attack on New York's World Trade Center, with black smoke billowing into the blue sky from the building where the aircraft struck. On the streets, rescue workers in orange uniforms helped the injured including a man with a bloody shirt holding his head. Ambulances streamed into the area and pedestrians peered upward.
As ambulance crews worked, a man with his shirt splattered with blood and his hand covering a gash on his head was rushed from the scene. Police cordoned off the area as people gawked at the skyscraper.
Trading on the Milan stock market was suspended. The central train station was evacuated for security reasons, and no trains were running from there.
Later Thursday, a constant stream of planes flew over Milan, heading to Linate a few miles from downtown and the main international hub, Malpensa airport, farther away. Most of the planes were larger jets flying high, heading to Malpensa.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card broke the news to President Bush, press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
"I think you can presume that we will be if we are not already in touch with Italian authorities and will ascertain precisely what the facts are," he said.
The FBI was assisting in the investigation, an FBI official said on condition of anonymity.
U.S. authorities had no recent intelligence suggesting any kind of terrorist attack was imminent in Milan, said a U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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