Three die and dozens hurt after plane hits skyscraper

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The Independent Online

Fears of an 11 September-style attack reverberated around the world yesterday when a small plane crashed into a Milan skyscraper, killing at least three people and injuring dozens.

Fears of an 11 September-style attack reverberated around the world yesterday when a small plane crashed into a Milan skyscraper, killing at least three people and injuring dozens.

Television stations interrupted programming to show the 31-storey Pirelli tower on fire. Smoke poured from the upper floors after the Rockwell Commander aircraft, with only the 75-year-old pilot on board, crashed between the 25th and 26th floors.

The first word of the crash sent tremors through American and world financial markets, with the Dow Jones index dropping nearly 1 per cent.

The speaker of Italy's upper house of parliament initially said the tower, a Milan landmark, had "very probably" been the target of a terror attack. But word swiftly came that the crash was probably an accident. Police said the pilot sent out a distress call at 5.50pm (4.50pm UK time), four minutes before impact. Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft on fire before it hit the building.

The four-seater plane, which was on its way from the Swiss town of Locarno to Linate airport, Milan, had reported undercarriage problems and was circling the city before trying to land, Italian officials said. "We believe it isn't a terrorist attack," said Vincenzo Curto, a carabinieri paramilitary officer.

The impact, described as resembling an earthquake, shattered glass and triggered a fire in the top four storeys of the building, which houses the Lombardy region's government offices. The death toll could have been much higher but for the fact that the upper floors were being refurbished. Among the three dead was the pilot, Gino Fasulo.

Claudio Chetta was in a meeting on the 24th floor with seven colleagues when they heard the explosion. "The building trembled and the windows crashed and collapsed all over us. It was really scary," he said. "There was dust and glass everywhere. The lifts were blocked so we went down by the emergency staircase." He and his colleagues helped carry a disabled woman to safety.

Firemen were able to bring the blaze under control in about an hour, but the risk of the tower collapsing was said to be serious.

A number of witnesses said they saw another aircraft flying low over the building shortly after the impact. There was no immediate explanation.

President George Bush was briefed on the crash almost as soon as it happened. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, cut short a visit to Bulgaria to return home.

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