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    Plane hits skyscraper

    Crash by student pilot, 15, called accident by authorities.

    photo
    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    The single-engine plane, piloted by a 15-year-old from Palm Harbor, crashed into Bank of America Plaza in downtown Tampa. The pilot was killed but there were no injuries in the building and on the ground.

    By TAMARA LUSH, AMY WIMMER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2002


    A small, single-engine aircraft crashed into the 28th floor of Bank of America Plaza in downtown Tampa on Saturday, flown by a 15-year-old student pilot who took off minutes earlier without permission from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

    Charles J. Bishop, a freshman at East Lake High School, was killed in the 5:05 p.m. crash. There were no other reported deaths or injuries.

    Local and national authorities quickly said the incident has no apparent connection to terrorism. But immediate comparisons were made to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the FBI was investigating.

    "At this time there is no indication of terrorism," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

    Tampa police spokeswoman Katie Hughes said about 40 people were in the building at the time of the crash, but all were safely evacuated.

    With high winds and rain in the forecast, workers late Saturday night secured what remained of the aircraft, protruding from the side of the 42-story tower at 101 Kennedy Blvd.

    Emergency workers were waiting for a crane that could reach the wreckage 290 feet above the street. Workers planned to hook chains to the protruding section of the plane and lower it with the crane. The engine was to be brought down through elevators because of its weight. The pilot's body remained in the cockpit. Because the plane is considered part of a crime scene, they planned to lower the plane with the body inside, keeping as much of the plane intact as possible.

    The plane was leaking fuel, Hughes said, and Tampa Fire Rescue personnel used foam to neutralize the area.

    "Our concern is where the tail will fall," Hughes said.

    The plane crash snarled traffic in parts of downtown for more than two hours. Traffic westbound on Interstate 4 was not allowed to go south toward downtown on Interstate 275. Traffic southbound on I-275 was stopped at the I-4 interchange, and other exits to downtown were blocked.

    Security guard Jeannie Ibrahim was on the 27th floor of the Park Tower next door, admiring the view out of the glass windows when she saw a small plane gliding nearby.

    "I saw the airplane hit the building," Ibrahim recalled.

    Her first thought, she said, was of terrorists. "I kept thinking of September 11th."

    "I ran downstairs and thought, "Oh my God, this can't be.' "

    Eric Reyes and girlfriend Desiree Cacciatore were stopped in front of the Bank of America building when they saw a big cloud of smoke.

    "I saw two wings fall out of the sky and hit the ground," said Reyes, 25. "At first I thought it was window washers that fell down. Then it struck me, oh my gosh, it's a plane. What the h--- was that thing doing falling out of the sky?"

    Airborne without clearance

    The teen apparently performed a routine preflight check on the 2000 model Cessna 172R, then inexplicably took off without his instructor and headed east, said Sgt. Greg Tita of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

    "He was asked to check to see if the aircraft was safe to fly," Tita said. "Without the flight instructor's knowledge, he got in the plane and took off."

    Michael Cronin, an attorney for the flight school, said Bishop had been in training since March. Part of the training and development is performing preflight checks of an aircraft, Cronin said, "typically done by the student."

    Bishop, he said, "essentially stole the aircraft and took off without authorization."

    The attorney said he would not identify the flight instructor, nor "speculate on (Bishop's) mental state or motivations."

    Tita, however, said the youth "had no previous threats or foreshadowing. . . . It was not a terrorist attack of any nature."

    Rick Dodge, county director of economic development, called the company "very thorough, very professional, very successful and they take everything they do very seriously and do it well." National is a fixed-based operator, which services private and corporate aircraft and operates a flight school.

    Bishop's mother and grandmother spent most of Saturday night with law enforcement officials. Cronin described them as "distraught."

    When the Cessna took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport, the control tower notified MacDill Air Force Base. An airborne HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter based at the Coast Guard air station at the airport intercepted the plane.

    "The HH-60 helicopter gave the plane's pilot visual signals to land at Peter O. Knight Airport (on Davis Islands in Tampa)," said Coast Guard Lt. Alan LaPenna. "The helicopter's crew tried to point down as they were flying by that airport."

    A rescue swimmer aboard the chopper laid down on the floor of the helicopter with the door open and pointed down, signalling that the aircraft should descend. The airplane did descend, then veered off.

    LaPenna stressed that "this was not an intercept." The helicopter was unarmed. It's not a normal mission for it to intercept and force down airplanes as F-15 and F-16 jet fighters do.

    The only reason the helicopter was involved was because it was airborne and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport communicated that to MacDill.

    It was virtually impossible for the pilot of the Cessna to fly east from St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport and not violate restricted airspace, according to Ed Cooley, senior director of operations at TIA.

    "Once you get within 5 miles of Tampa International, the restricted airspace extends from the ground up (to 10,000 feet)," Cooley said. "You cannot fly into or through that airspace without voice contact with the control tower and a working transponder, unless you've been given specific permission to fly without a transponder."

    A airplane transponder emits a signal for controllers' radar which identifies the aircraft, its altitude and speed.

    An aircraft flying toward TIA at low altitude would enter the airport's restricted airspace about half way across Tampa Bay. And virtually any low-altitude flight path over the southern third of the South Tampa peninsula would violate MacDill's airspace.

    The plane crashed into the law offices of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, which occupies the 28th floor and part of the 29th floor.

    Late Saturday, the law firm's offices looked oddly undisturbed, said Dick Beard, a Tampa businessman who is partner of a group that owns Bank of America Plaza.

    Except in the office that was hit, "it looked like nothing ever happened," said Beard, who rode up to see the scene.

    The law firm's traditional trappings -- dark carpeting, wood, fat law books -- seemed undisturbed, except for a little water on the carpet outside the law office of partner Kevin Graham.

    Remarkably, the damage was contained to Graham's office, Beard said. The plane did not puncture any of the office's interior walls, he said.

    "I didn't smell gasoline or anything," Beard said. "It is not a big deal."

    Chris Prather, building manager for the management company Insignia/ESG that runs the building, said the plane did not damage the building's electrical powers or elevators. He said he didn't know if the impact set off any sprinklers, fire alarms or stopped the elevators.

    The incident disrupted air traffic at Tampa International Airport for nearly an hour, a TIA spokeswoman said.

    -- Staff writers Keith Niebuhr, Curtis Krueger, Melia Bowie, Amy Herdy and Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report.


    Crash by student pilot, 15, called accident by authorities.

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