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Plane Hits Building in Milan After Sending Distress Signal

By Tom Hundley


A small single-engine plane slammed into Milan's tallest office tower Thursday evening, killing four, injuring more than 20 people and stirring fears of a replay of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center.

The incident briefly sent shockwaves through global financial markets Thursday. Stocks tumbled in Europe, the U.S. dollar and the euro weakened, and in Washington, President Bush was alerted.

But Italian authorities quickly ruled out terrorism as a possible cause of the crash. They said the pilot, a 67-year-old Swiss citizen who was flying alone, radioed that he was having mechanical problems a minute before he plowed into the 25th floor of Milan's Pirelli Building.

“I heard the noise of a plane and I asked myself why was it flying at that altitude. Then I heard an enormous explosion,” Michele Ferretti, who works in a nearby office building, told Italian journalists. “We all evacuated down the fire-escape stairs. We were frightened, I saw people in shock. You had the feeling of living in a film you had already seen.”

The crash sent plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and debris crashing to the sidewalk below.

Office worker Maurizio Sala was on the 20th floor when two explosions shook his building.

“We all rushed to the window and we suddenly realized it was something similar to the World Trade towers because thousands of pieces of paper were flying through the air. It was the same image,” he said.

The plane “was in flames before it hit the building and it did not try to deviate its course but just went straight in,” said Fabio Sunik, a sports journalist who said he saw the plane smash into the skyscraper.

“Then I saw rubble falling from the building,” said Sunik, who was standing in front of the central train station, some 200 yards from the crash.

The crash left gaping holes in both the front and back of the building. It caused heavy damage on two floors, but authorities said there was no danger of the glass, steel and concrete building collapsing.

The 30-story Pirelli Building is Milan’s tallest. Built in the late 1950s, it served as headquarters for the Pirelli Tire company until 1978. It now houses the offices for the regional government of Lombardy.

By 5:55 p.m., the time of the crash, many of the civil servants who worked in the building had gone home for the day. Emergency workers quickly evacuated those who remained.

Angela Fassina, 40, said she managed to get down 21 floors in 15 minutes. “We were down the first six flights without noticing, but then we started meeting emergency workers coming up and asking if there were injured. I told them to hurry because there was a woman seven-months pregnant who would never be able to get down by herself,” she said.

The plane, identified by aviation authorities as a Rockwell Commander, had taken off from Locarno, Switzerland, 50 miles northwest of Milan, and was heading to Milan, about 20 minutes away. The pilot, Luigi Fasulo, was alone in the four-seat aircraft when he radioed a distress call. His friends described him as a skilled amateur pilot with more than 30 years of flying experience.