Teen's suicide note tells of sympathy for bin Laden
By KATHRYN WEXLER, ROBERT FARLEY and BILL ADAIR
TAMPA -- A teenager who smashed a Cessna plane into a Tampa high-rise Saturday, moments after passing over a Southwest Airlines jet, left behind a suicide note expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
But investigators do not think the East Lake student pilot, 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop, was linked to bin Laden or any other terrorist group.
"According to the note, Bishop clearly stated that he has acted alone without any help from anyone else," Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder said during a multi-agency press conference Sunday.
Authorities did not elaborate on phrasing of the handwritten note, found on the youth when he crashed into the Bank of America tower.
They said Bishop did not mention a specific target. He gave no indication in the note, three or four paragraphs long, that he intended to harm anyone but himself. In fact, investigators said, he appeared to be well in control of the plane during the 9-to-12 minute flight.
"It appears at this time it was a deliberate act," said Butch Wilson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
As authorities inspected debris Sunday, a conflicting profile of the East Lake High School freshman began to emerge: Despite his apparent backing of bin Laden, he recently wrote a school essay condemning the Sept. 11 attack. And while some knew him as a well-adjusted honors student, he recently hinted of something calamitous.
"If something happens to me, don't let any of my enemies come to my funeral," Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said Bishop told his grandmother before lifting off from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, without his flight instructor.
Bishop recently told certain classmates to watch the news, Greco said.
"He can best be described as a young man who has very few friends and who was very much a loner," Holder said.
In another significant development Sunday, the head of the Tampa air traffic controllers union said the tiny plane passed just 1,000 feet above a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 that had taken off moments earlier from Tampa International Airport.
Joe Formoso, the head of the controllers union, said the Cessna had climbed steeply after it departed from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Tampa controllers, alerted to the incident by the tower at St. Petersburg-Clearwater, warned the pilots of the Southwest Airlines jetliner. The Southwest pilots saw the Cessna and quickly slowed their climb.
"It was only by the grace of God that the Southwest pilots saw it," said Formoso.
Tales from teen's life offer conflicting image
After a day of trying to piece together an understanding of Charles Bishop, investigators were struck by how much they didn't know.
"Apparently he didn't have anyone in his family who would talk about him or his personality, so we don't know much about him," said the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokesman, Sgt. Greg Tita.
Tita said the boy's mother and grandmother were distraught and "very much in denial." Holder said the family didn't know of his sympathy for bin Laden.
His mother, Julia Bishop, spent several hours with FBI agents and sheriff's officials Sunday at her East Lake apartment. Tita said detectives are still trying to obtain information about the father.
Detectives seized Bishop's personal computer and were looking for communications or evidence of chat room discussions. They are particularly interested in an e-mail Bishop sent to a friend, though they declined to elaborate.
"As of now, there has been no information gleaned as to why he did what he did," Tita said.
The Bishop family moved frequently.
Born in Massachusetts, Bishop lived in Atlanta from 1996 to 1998 before moving to Tampa. There, he attended several schools, including Walker Middle School and Davidsen Middle School.
The family lived briefly in a town home in the Berkeley Square subdivision of Westchase.
Robyn Larson and her son, who lived next door, remembered Bishop as tall and wiry, clean cut with curly brown hair.
"He bordered on being shy," said Larson, 31. "He'd smile and say hello. I'd see him walking his dog."
On two occasions, Larson hired Bishop to watch her son Jacob, then 8. She had an informal interview with Bishop, though Larson did most of the talking. She said Bishop made a good impression.
"I'm very selective about who I leave Jacob with," she said. "Charles was sweet."
The mothers spoke informally a few times. Larson learned Julia Bishop worked as a freelance graphic artist from home. They moved away after nine months in the neighborhood.
"She said she wanted to be closer to her mother," said Larson.
The family moved to East Lake in September of 2000, and Bishop attended private school at Dunedin Academy in Pinellas. Bishop also made a positive impression there.
Headmaster Dale Porter said Bishop was friendly with many other students in his eighth-grade class and played on the basketball and flag football teams.
Bishop coordinated a project that collected eighth-graders' thoughts on Christmas, Porter said. In Bishop's piece, he wrote that people should remember to think of others.
"Some people think it's just give and take," Bishop wrote. "People who celebrate the holiday of Christmas should not be selfish. Rejoice."
The note about being sympathetic toward Osama bin Laden is perplexing, Porter said. Bishop once entered the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Junior American Citizens contests.
"Those are very patriotic competitions," Porter said. "Charles was one of the leading entries."
Bishop wanted to stay at Dunedin Academy this year but couldn't because of transportation problems, Porter said. He went instead to East Lake High, which was closer to his home.
"He was a nice boy and an excellent student," Porter said. "I would think there must be some major change in the last few months."
At East Lake High School, Bishop gave an oral presentation on the Sept. 11 attacks.
"He expressed how angry he was that someone would attack America," said Derek Perryman, an East Lake High School senior. "He was disgusted by Osama bin Laden."
Perryman remembered that Bishop was friends with another student, a flying aficionado.
"That's pretty much all they talked about. . . . Both of them were looking to be pilots," Perryman said.
The news shocked Bishop's honors class teachers at East Lake High School.
"He never showed any signs of there being a problem in his life," said Andrea Panarelli, who had Bishop in her second period honors English class. "He was a bright, good kid."
But at least one classmate picked up on signs that Bishop's cheerfulness seemed forced. Adam Goch said Bishop never spoke up in journalism class, nor befriended other students.
"It didn't seem like he wanted to fit into the norm, all the high school B.S.," Goch said.
Bishop's perpetual smile seemed "pretty weird," said Goch, a junior.
"It didn't seem like he was genuinely happy."
Lack of fire helped prevent greater damage
The Cessna banked and swooped into the Bank of America building at an angle, ripping a hole three stories high into the southeast corner. By Sunday morning, engineers had determined that the tower at 101 E Kennedy Blvd. was structurally sound.
Tenants, most of whom work for law firms, will be allowed to return this morning. Access to the 28th and 29th floors, however, will be restricted to employees.
The corner office on the 28th floor remains a soggy, entangled mess, said Capt. Scott Ehlers of Tampa Fire Rescue.
The right side of the Cessna partly lodged inside the office, its tail hanging over the edge and dangling over Ashley Street. Wires, panels, air ducts and lights hung from the ceiling. A desk and book shelf were pulverized. A wall buckled. And grey concrete dust covered everything.
Fuel dripped onto the floor from the Cessna's broken wing.
That the Cessna did not explode into flames was "a blessing," said Ehlers, one of the first firefighters on the scene. The two commercial flights that rammed the World Trade Center ignited and eventually melted the buildings' supports.
The Cessna uses a fuel that burns hotter than regular vehicle gasoline, but not as hot as that used by large aircraft. The impact of the small plane ripped away concrete from support beams of the Bank of America building, Ehlers said.
Had the plane caught fire, "it would have probably weakened a lot of those supports," he said.
The cockpit was split open. Inside, Bishop was clearly dead on impact, Ehlers said.
Firefighters used foam to snuff fuel vapors. With ropes and chains, they secured the Cessna to a column in the building, then pulled the aircraft inside with winches.
Under the guidance of an aircraft mechanic with the Tampa Police Department, firefighters carved up the plane and took it, piece by piece, down the elevator.
The twisted scraps of metal were loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven to Peter O. Knight airport on Davis Islands, to be reassembled for investigation.
"Our concern was to keep that aircraft from falling out of the window," Ehlers said. But there was something else on his mind, too: his close friend, Richy Muldowney, a firefighter in New York City who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"To be truthful, there were times in those relaxed moments in the building up there that yeah, it went though your mind, what those guys had gone through up there on a much larger plane."
Officials feared the Bank of America's white marble slabs were loosened from the impact and could tumble onto the street below.
One block of Ashley Street, from Kennedy Boulevard to Jackson Street, will remain closed this morning, as will one block of Jackson Street, between Ashley and Tampa streets, according to Tampa police.
Meanwhile, the building remained closed Sunday to everyone but investigators, leaving tenants pleading with security personnel to retrieve everything from Bucs tickets to plane tickets.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday morning, lawyer Kevin Graham leaned toward the intercom speaker outside the Bank of America building, then begged to be let in.
"I'm actually the guy whose office that the plane hit," Graham said into the intercom.
"Who?" came the confused response from a female security guard, who eventually escorted him to the 28th floor after checking his business card.
Rich Gale, a portfolio manager for Bank of America who works on the fourth floor, ran down the stairs Saturday when the plane struck, abandoning his keys on his desk. Since officials immediately closed the building to everyone but officials, Gale spent the night at a friend's house. Only on Sunday morning could he cajole a building employee to retrieve the keys to his apartment and car.
"I don't even care," said Gale, thinking about the plane's powerful impact to Graham's office. "What would have happened if that were my window?"
Graham, for his part, shrugged off the damage to his office before being whisked inside by a security guard, one of the few employees admitted inside.
Said Graham, a partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, "It seems so trivial as compared to the loss of life."
-- Staff writers Katherine Gazella, Michael Sandler, Eileen Schulte, Tamara Lush, Tim Grant, Curtis Krueger and Kelly Ryan Gilmer contributed to this report.
-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
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