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The Nation

Boy Who Crashed Plane Carried Note of Sympathy for Bin Laden

Inquiry: Student pilot described as lonely and depressed. Authorities say he acted alone.

January 07, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. — It was a lonely and despondent 15-year-old, feeling sympathy for accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who stole a private plane and slammed it into a Tampa skyscraper, authorities said Sunday.

A brief handwritten note found in the pocket of student pilot Charles J. Bishop, who died in the Saturday crash, strongly implied that the high school freshman was inspired by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"He made a statement expressing sympathy with Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11," Tampa Police Chief Bennie R. Holder said at a news conference.

Despite the contents of the note, authorities said they were treating the incident as the suicide of a desperate teen and not as an attack against a U.S. target.

"He had acted alone, without any help from anyone else," Holder said. "This was a young man who had very few friends and he was very much a loner. From this action, we can assume he was a very troubled young man."

No one else was hurt when the single-engine Cessna, which may have been traveling about 100 mph, punched a 10-foot-wide gap in the side of the 42-story Bank of America Plaza building only minutes after taking off from nearby St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Unwittingly, the boy may have revealed holes in the aerial safety net that many Americans believe protects the country's cities. When asked whether nothing could have been done to prevent Saturday's crash, a National Transportation Safety Board official said, "That's correct."

"The response was occurring when the aircraft hit the building," said Butch Wilson, an NTSB investigator. "Things were moving, but in nine to 12 minutes, to get aircraft in the air, it's not enough time."

He added: "You can't protect people from someone who's bound and determined to do themselves in."

Neighbors in middle-class Palm Harbor, Fla., where Bishop lived with his mother for at least three months, said the boy often appeared sad and withdrawn. The new arrival was small for his age and seemed to have been trying hard but unsuccessfully to fit in.

"When I'd walk my dog, and he'd walk by, I always had the sense that he was depressed," said Linda Wolf, an airline sales employee whose son rode the same school bus as Bishop. "His carriage was one of somebody who just wasn't very happy."

Lindsey Knott, 18, a classmate of Bishop at East Lake High School, described him as friendly but said he was usually alone. "He was kind of quiet most of the time, but you'd hear him telling about where he had moved from, or how he was new here."

Some neighbors said he came to Florida from Boston.

Other students who rode the bus with Bishop said he never spoke during the journeys to and from school, and mostly stared out the window. "He stayed mostly to himself, as far as I could tell," said Dan Harrison, 15. Bishop frequently walked the neighborhood streets, joined by his terrier and always wearing shorts, he said.

On Sunday, FBI agents and forensic investigators of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department searched through the gray-and-white two-story townhouse where Bishop lived, looking for clues about his mood and motivations. Holder said the boy's computer also would be searched.

The police chief declined to provide further information from the note written by the boy, saying the investigation was continuing.

Teenager Took Off Without Instructor

Bishop, a flight student, showed up for a 5 p.m. EST lesson Saturday at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport and was instructed to conduct a preflight check of the plane, police said. He took off without waiting for an instructor who was supposed to accompany him.

A Coast Guard helicopter chased down the plane, but Bishop ignored the copter pilot's signals to land.

During his short flight, the teenager breached the restricted airspace of MacDill Air Force Base south of Tampa, where U.S. Central Command is directing the actions of American troops in Afghanistan.

The base was alerted by radio that a minor flying a private plane was coming in its direction, but "we didn't feel that there was any threat to MacDill at the time," said Lt. Col. Rich McClain, a base spokesman.

Two F-15 fighter jets scrambled from Homestead Air Base, 200 miles south of Tampa, near Miami, to try to intercept Bishop, but by the time they arrived, the Cessna had plowed into the 28th floor of the Bank of America tower, a prominent feature of this city's skyline.

Officials said there was little doubt that Bishop had been in control of the plane at all times. "I have radar data that shows him flying directly into the building," Wilson said.

Bishop had been taking lessons since March at the airport, on the western side of Tampa Bay. He was not a frequent student and would wash the airplanes belonging to the school, National Aviation Holding Inc., to get a break on the fees.

Investigators said Sunday that it did not appear that any regulations were violated in leaving Bishop alone with the plane and its keys.

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