Milan crash: One explosion, then another. And everyone thought of New York

Devastation in the financial and cultural centre of Italy stirs echoes of attacks on the World Trade Centre
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Luca Gritti was in his office on the 17th storey of the Pirelli building when he felt the floor and walls begin to shake.

"It felt like an earthquake, a huge strike," he said. "Smoke came pouring into the room. We tried to run towards the lift but they were out of order. The impact had destroyed the lift shaft, blocking it. So we ran down the stairs, petrified."

Yesterday, the people of Milan, the financial and cultural centre of Italy, were in shock after experiencing what they thought was a terror attack.

Mr Gritti is an architect employed by the Lombardy regional government, whose offices are in the 31-storey Pirelli tower. Like everyone else in the building at that moment, he remembered last year's attacks in Washington and New York. A woman who works in the building said her thoughts "immediately went to 11 September".

One office worker said: "We thought it was two bombs because we heard two terrible noises: one when the plane hit the building and another one when an explosion followed." Another member of staff was in the lift with a colleague when they heard a roar. "As we managed to get out, all the glass and windows exploded."

At least three people were killed and about 60 wounded when the small four-seater Rockwell Commander plane flown by a 75-year old Swiss pilot crashed into the Milan landmark between the 25th and 26th floors after reporting a mechanical problem.

There was a discrepancy over the death toll. Earlier, a civil defense official, Carlo Leo, reported five dead: the pilot, two office workers and two passers-by. However, the vice president of the Lombardy region, Vivian Beccalossi, reported only three dead late Thursday: the pilot, a cleaning woman and a government lawyer.

Fortunately, most of the 1,500-odd people who work in the building had already left work when the plane slammed into the tower just before 6pm.

Despite the ensuing pandemonium, it took only a few minutes for the people inside to evacuate. Firemen were able to bring the fire under control quickly in the upper floors.

The streets around the building were blocked off to protect the crowds who had gathered, amid fears that the building would come crashing down, just like the World Trade Centre in New York. "I was near the building and after the explosion there was a rain of glass and dust and debris, we had to run away," one man said.

Claudio Chetta, who was in a meeting on the 24th floor with seven other colleagues when they heard the explosion, said: "In our room, nobody was injured seriously. In 10 minutes we were all out safe."

Rescue workers found a survivor three hours after the crash on the 25th floor, where one of the dead was also found.

The building, known as the Pirellone or big Pirelli, was a much loved and loathed symbol of Milan's economic might. It houses the regional government of Lombardy; up to 1,500 people work there each day.

Massimo Buscemi, head of the regional health committee, said: "We were looking up at the tower with smoke pouring out from the top floors when we saw another aircraft. It was very low, I would guess about 150 metres above the Pirelli tower. My heart was in my mouth as I thought it was going to be like New York all over again, but then the craft veered off towards the east of the city."

By evening experts had ruled out the risk of collapse, noting that the tiny aircraft had ploughed into the middle of the building whose main supports were on the sides.

What is less easy to explain is how an aircraft in difficulty found itself directly above the commercial centre of Milan. Air traffic restrictions on Italian cities have been stepped up after 11 September, and in Rome there is a ban on flying over the centre for fear that the Vatican might be a target for Islamic fundamentalists. The US State Department has said that it considers the Milan Islamic Cultural centre a hotbed of Islamic radicals in Europe.

The National Air Safety agency and the civil aviation authorities have already opened separate inquiries into yesterday's incident.