WASHINGTON — Secret Service officials suggested Monday that a dramatic suicide, rather than an assassination attempt, was the most likely motivation behind the crash on the White House South Lawn of a light plane piloted by Frank Eugene Corder, a 38-year-old truck driver with a history of alcohol and drug problems.
The plane's dive onto the White House South Lawn at 1:49 a.m. Monday "does not appear directed toward the President," Secret Service spokesman Carl Meyer told reporters, warning that the conclusion was "very preliminary."
The plane contained no explosives or other weapons, Meyer noted, and investigators have found no evidence that Corder had any political grievance against President Clinton nor that he had ever threatened the Clintons.
Investigators did discover that Corder, who lived in Perryville, Md., northeast of Baltimore, had been treated last year for alcoholism at the Perry Point Medical Center, a Veterans Administration hospital in Maryland, had separated three weeks ago from his wife and had been distraught over the death of his father last spring.
Clinton said during a speech to young people enrolled in national service programs that "we take this incident seriously because the White House is the people's house, and it's the job of every President who lives here to keep it safe and secure."
"Let me assure all Americans (that) the people's house will be kept safe, it will be kept open and the people's business will go on," Clinton said.
But even as workmen removed the debris from the wrecked plane and the Clintons moved back into the White House from a five-night stay across the street in Blair House, officials conceded that they cannot now--and may never be able to--conclusively guarantee that a pilot determined to penetrate the secured airspace around the White House could be stopped.
The plane had been detected by radar at National Airport minutes before the crash, federal investigators told the Washington Post. The investigators are now trying to determine why Secret Service officers guarding the mansion were not warned of the aircraft's approach.
FBI and Secret Service investigators plan to check Federal Aviation Administration records to determine what the radar showed, whether it seemed to indicate a threat, and what was done with the information, federal sources told the Post.
The airspace around the White House is officially restricted but is only about a mile from the heavily used air corridors of National Airport.
To protect the building, the Secret Service routinely stations sharpshooters on the roof and security forces have been reported to be armed with shoulder-fired Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
Meyer suggested that security measures might have been more aggressive had the Clintons been in the residence instead of in Blair House, the official U.S. residence for visiting dignitaries, where they had been living while workmen completed renovations on the White House heating and ventilation system. But Meyer declined to say precisely what different procedures might have been followed.
In any case, the uniformed Secret Service agents patrolling the White House apparently had no inkling that Corder's plane was coming until they saw it heading for them only seconds before it hit, Meyer said.
No shots were fired. "I don't think there was all that much time, to be quite honest with you," Meyer said.
The White House lawn became an unauthorized landing zone once before--20 years ago, when an Army private stole a military helicopter and landed it on the lawn. The private, who was said to have mental problems, was hit by shotgun fire but survived. In 1976, a man tried to ram a pickup truck into the White House but was stopped by the steel bars of the fence.
According to preliminary evidence gathered by investigators, Corder, whose father had worked as an airplane maintenance engineer, stole the red-and-white, two-seat Cessna 150 trainer from a flying club at a small airport in northeastern Maryland, about 50 miles from Washington. He then flew southwest, toward the capital, crossing over the city and approaching the White House from the north at low altitude.
According to witnesses, after passing just west of the White House, Corder turned near the Washington Monument, apparently cut off his engines and glided in over a large steel fence, crashing into the lawn at a point about 90 feet from the White House.
The plane skidded up to the building, clipping a branch off a venerable magnolia tree planted on the White House grounds by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. The plane came to rest crumpled in a ball against the south wall of the White House, near the window of the White House physician's office, which cracked, and not far from the main entrance used for diplomatic visits. It was about 50 yards from the Oval Office.
Stunned security guards quickly summoned help.