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    Witnesses feared repeat of Sept. 11

    photo
    [Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
    Barb Lytle, center front, and other witnesses look up at Bank of America Plaza. Onlookers could see the tail of the plane hanging out of a window. The crash was an eerie reminder to some witnesses of the Sept. 11 terrorist crashes into the World Trade Center.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD, TAMARA LUSH and DAVID KARP
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2002


    TAMPA -- Working at her law firm Saturday, Monica Lothrop was startled by a loud boom. She had no idea what it could be. She and her husband were the only people on the 28th floor of Bank of America Plaza.

    They ran toward the noise: A plane had smashed a hole in the building, demolishing a lawyer's office. The frightened couple immediately thought of Sept. 11.

    "You're looking out into the open air, the blue sky, 28 floors up," said Monica Lothrop, an attorney at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, which has offices on the 28th and 29th floors. "I thought, "Oh my gosh, it's happening again, and they're targeting the Bank of America building. The plane is going to explode, and there's more planes coming, and we have to get out of here."

    She had been working in the firm's library inside the building when the plane crashed. Her husband, who had accompanied her to work, was in her office on the building's west side, not far from the impact.

    Brian Lothrop heard what he described as "a crazy, things-breaking sound" and saw liquid splashing on his wife's office window. He later realized it must have been airplane fuel.

    He ran to his wife. "Did you hear that?" he asked. They returned to her office, looked out the window and saw a Coast Guard helicopter hovering outside. Then, to their left, they could see the plane's tail sticking out of the building.

    They ran down a hallway toward the crash, thinking someone in the plane might be hurt. When they reached the office of attorney Kevin Graham, they found it filled with dusty concrete debris and airplane parts.

    Graham had left the office just a little while earlier.

    "He would have been killed," Monica Lothrop said. "It went right into his desk and chair."

    The plane's pilot was nowhere in sight.

    "The front of the aircraft was totally destroyed, but I could see empty plane seats right there. There were seats right there in the office," said Brian Lothrop, a computer engineer. "We looked around and couldn't see anybody hurt. It was bizarre. There was no evidence of people at all."

    Much of the plane was hanging out of the building. The couple didn't want to get too close, fearing that if they touched the plane, it might fall back out of the hole in the wall. They could smell fuel. They called 911 before taking an elevator to the building's lobby.

    "I was drenched in sweat, panicked, fighting to stay on the phone with the 911 people," Monica Lothrop said. "You can't compare this to Sept. 11, but it's on your mind. You're thinking, "I'm going to be like those people who didn't get out in time.' "

    Meanwhile, outside the building in downtown Tampa, dozens of people going about life's mundane moments looked on in horror as the plane slammed into the 42-story building's marble and glass facade.

    Christine Epstein of Brandon was driving home from International Plaza, stopped at a light on Ashley Drive, when she saw the plane hit and a wing plummet 28 stories to the ground.

    "It barely missed oncoming traffic," said Epstein, who shakily dialed 911. "It was a slow-motion movie."

    Tampa police, whose headquarters are a block from the crash site, quickly prepared for the worst.

    Some thought the plane had simply run out of fuel and had nowhere to go.

    "There were no flames, no smoke, no nothing," said Michele Cabello of Chicago. "Just a loud "pow.' "

    It hit shortly after 5 p.m., just as theatergoers were leaving The Music Man at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and as people arrived for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Ice Palace.

    Henry Greene was sitting by the waterfront, "enjoying city life," when he saw a Coast Guard helicopter, then noticed the plane.

    The plane, "just ran straight into the building like they were ready to die," Greene said. "It was crazy."

    Within minutes, people gathered on Ashley Drive, snapping pictures, taking videos and pointing. Onlookers who had just been to the theater pulled opera glasses out of their coats to get a closer peek at the wreckage, which was visible from almost anywhere on Ashley.

    Graham, the man whose office the plane destroyed, learned about the crash when the Lothrops called him. He thought they were joking.

    Graham, 49, a partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, had been in his office since 9 a.m., working on a brief due Monday.

    He planned to stay late into the evening to finish the brief, but by mid afternoon, he got writer's block. He kept rewriting one paragraph. So around 4 p.m., he left.

    An hour later, the plane rammed into his office.

    "I could have easily been there," Graham said.

    Graham, a commercial litigator who has worked at the firm since 1986, often works weekends.

    "Typically, I would have stayed later, but providence being what it was, I decided to leave," Graham said from his north Tampa home late Saturday. "It is sort of interesting that I sit here reflecting on it."

    Graham said he didn't know the extent of damage in his office -- and he wasn't overly concerned about what furniture or mementos might have been destroyed. He said he was told he can get into his office today. "Those things can be replaced," Graham said. "Regrettably, the student who was flying the plane cannot. ... My bigger concern is there was a tragedy that someone died here."

    -- Times staff writers Dong-Phuong Nguyen, Amy Herdy and John Martin contributed to this report.

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