MIAMI — In an episode joltingly reminiscent of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, a 15-year-old student pilot stole a small single-engine airplane Saturday and flew it into a downtown office building in Tampa, Fla., killing himself and damaging the 40-story structure.
Given the nationwide security alerts in recent weeks and the similarity to the events of Sept. 11, when hijackers flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Florida crash triggered a wide response from law enforcement agencies responsible for combating terrorism.
But the plane that crashed Saturday, a Cessna 172, could carry no more than 40 gallons of fuel, far less than the huge quantities of fuel--about 10,000 gallons on each jet--that created deadly infernos in New York and Arlington, Va.
Except for the pilot, identified as 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop, of Palm Harbor, Fla., there were no deaths or injuries in the Tampa crash.
And, while FBI agents raced to the scene and senior government officials were alerted, an FBI spokeswoman said a preliminary investigation found no evidence to suggest the Florida incident involved Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network or any other terrorist organization.
"From what our Tampa office is telling our [Washington] command center, there is no link to terrorism," FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell said in Washington.
The incident was all the more jarring and sounded alarm bells at the highest echelons of the Pentagon because, before the plane crashed, it apparently violated the restricted airspace around MacDill Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Central Command. CentCom, as it is known, is supervising the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden.
Also, many of the 19 hijackers involved in last year's terrorist attacks had received flight school training in Florida.
Youth Was Scheduled for Flight Lesson
Instead of terrorism, the incident turned out to be a personal tragedy.
The Cessna pilot was a student at East Lake High School, and he was the only person aboard the aircraft.
It was not known whether he struck the Bank of America building on purpose; the structure is a prominent feature of the Tampa skyline. A portion of the plane could be seen protruding from the 28th floor of the building, but there was no fire.
Bishop, who was too young to be licensed for solo flight, had been a flight student for two years and had arrived at the airport Saturday for a 5 p.m. EST lesson, Pinellas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Greg Tita said.
Bishop was asked by his instructor to do a preflight check on the Cessna 172, owned by Clearwater, Fla.-based National Aviation Holding Inc.
Instead, he boarded the aircraft alone and took off at 4:50 p.m. without permission from the airport control tower, officials said.
The tower notified the Coast Guard, and an A-60 helicopter on patrol in the area was diverted to intercept the plane. The helicopter was able to fly within a few yards of the plane but received no response when its pilot gave visual signals directing the Cessna pilot to land at a small airport near downtown Tampa, Coast Guard spokeswoman Charlotte Pittman said in a television interview.
Pittman said the helicopter was so close to the plane that there could be no doubt the pilot saw the signals to land.
The helicopter continued to follow the Cessna until it plowed into the building just after 5 p.m.
Tampa police and fire crews rushed to the scene and laid down foam in case of fire.
The 28th floor houses the law firm of Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. Managing partner Greg Yadley said one attorney and her husband were in the offices at the time of the crash but were not injured. Hours before, he said, an attorney had been at a desk the plane smashed into.
"We were lucky," Yadley said.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, said the Tampa plane crash caused great concern. Owing to the sensitivity resulting from Sept. 11, President Bush and Thomas J. Ridge, director of homeland security, were alerted about the incident and kept in touch with each other--and with the Federal Aviation Administration--as more information became available.
"Everyone was talking to each other," Johndroe said.
Because of the sensitivity of military operations at CentCom--its airspace is restricted--officials there began tracking the small plane within minutes of its ascent.
"When airplanes veer in restricted airspace, appropriate measures are taken," one White House official said Saturday evening. "Once the plane took off and entered restricted airspace, they were monitoring it. I believe the [military defense] apparatus was engaged."
CentCom is perched on a peninsula overlooking downtown Tampa, with an Air Force population of 3,000. About 50 other organizations are on the sprawling base, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane watch unit and two major national military headquarters, the Special Operations Command and CentCom.