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    Crash offers a test run for terror response

    Though officials are pleased with the response, delays raise questions about attack preparedness.

    By CHUCK MURPHY and CURTIS KRUEGER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2002


    From the 27th floor of a nearby office tower, it sure looked like a terror attack.

    "I kept thinking of September 11th," said security guard Jeannie Ibrahim, who was watching from the Park Tower building as a Cessna hit Bank of America Plaza. "I ran downstairs and thought, "Oh my God, this can't be.' "

    It wasn't.

    As similar as Saturday's crash was to the attacks of Sept. 11, authorities who have been preparing for the worst were quickly persuaded that it was a random, unrelated event.

    Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore notified Gov. Jeb Bush shortly after the crash, but the state's Emergency Operations Center wasn't activated. State and local officials, who have devoted much of their post-Sept. 11 lives to planning "What if it happened here?" scenarios, were satisfied that there was no need for a more forceful response.

    "There was no real ramping up of things," said Steve Lauer, Florida's new Chief of Domestic Security Initiatives. "The plane and the circumstances surrounding it gave every indication of an accident."

    Before the plane hit the building, that was not so clear. And the speed at which events unfolded raised questions about the area's ability to respond to a plane headed toward MacDill Air Force Base, home of the soldiers commanding the nation's war in Afghanistan.

    Authorities at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport were the first to notify federal officials about the plane. It had taken off without clearance from the airport after a student pilot had been told only to perform a preflight check on the Cessna 172R.

    Someone in the tower at St. Petersburg-Clearwater notified MacDill about the strange occurrence, and told MacDill that a Coast Guard helicopter was in the air on routine patrol, according to Coast Guard Lt. Alan Lapenna.

    MacDill's tower contacted the helicopter and asked its crew to find the Cessna, then try to identify the plane and its intentions. The HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, which was not armed, was in no position to intercept the plane had it taken a turn toward people or the U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill.

    "The only reason we were involved with this was because we happened to be up," Lapenna said.

    The helicopter crew found the plane, and came up with a plan. They had their rescue swimmer lay on the floor of the helicopter next to the open door, pointing toward the ground and motioning for the Cessna pilot to follow.

    Meanwhile, a pair of F-15 fighter jets were scrambled from Homestead Air Force Base about 200 miles away, at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration. But long before they arrived, the Cessna, with an East Lake High School student at the controls, had crashed into the building.

    The F-15s continued on to Tampa, where they flew across the area in what is known as a combat air patrol pattern until the FAA determined there were no other threats, said Capt. Kirstin Reimann of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

    Meanwhile, Tampa police, the FAA, the FBI and other agencies were in contact with the student's flight school and were able to determine that he had no apparent connection to international terrorism.

    Now, as the National Transportation Safety Board and others try to determine what caused the crash, state and local officials will conduct a review to determine whether newly minted response plans worked the way they were supposed to.

    Though Lauer and others said they believed the system worked, there were some glitches. Among them: Lauer didn't learn of the crash until long after it occurred. He was playing golf in Wakulla County and apparently out of cell phone range.

    "But Commissioner Moore was notified right away and he told the governor. The chain of command functioned exactly as it was supposed to," Lauer said. "I believe it worked just the way we planned it."

    -- Staff writers Bill Adair, David Karp and Amy Herdy contributed to this report.

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