For a brief moment the world held its breath today - fearing a repeat of the September 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington had been launched on Milan, Italy’s financial capital.
In the midst of the city’s evening rush hour, a light aircraft crashed into a 416 ft skyscraper, tearing apart two floors, and killing three people including the pilot. Sixty more were injured
It was so like the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Centre’s twin towers that US President George W Bush was immediately alerted in the White House.
In Rome, Senate President Marcello Pera added to the fears saying it appeared it was ‘‘most probably’’ a terrorist attack.
But soon, fears of a return to major international terrorism were calmed.
It was discovered that the pilot of the Rockwell Commander, the only person on board, had sent out an SOS after his plane encountered mechanical difficulties while on a 50-mile flight from Locarno in Switzerland to Milan’s Linate airport.
He was said to be an experienced flier from the Locarno area.
‘‘The initial information that the Interior Ministry has lead us to lean toward an accident’’ as the cause, said Interior Minister Claudio Scajola.
‘‘It was clearly an air accident,’’ said Adalberto Pellegrino of the National Air Safety Agency.
Milan Police Office Celerissimo De Simone said Milan’s city airport, Linate, the plane’s destination, had been told by the pilot that the plane had landing gear problems.
De Simone said that eyewitnesses had told police that the plane was on fire before crashing into the building.
In Switzerland, a spokesman for the Swiss air traffic control office said the plane had taken off from Locarno airport at 5:15 pm - 39 minutes before the crash.
Fortunately, most of the local government workers in the skyscraper had finished work for the day when the small plane plunged into their offices. There was conflicting information about the possible cause.
One Milan hospital, Fatebene Fratelli, said it had received 20 injured, including a woman with burns.
One office worker, who worked on the eighth floor, said she saw 10 people who were bleeding.
As ambulance crews worked, a man with his shirt splattered with blood and his hand covering a gash on his head, was rushed from the scene.
Holes were punched into two sides of the slim Pirelli skyscraper and smoke was still pouring out nearly three hours after the crash, which happened at 5:54 pm local time
A large section of an entire floor lost its walls.
Smoke and liquid poured from the gash in one side of the building.
Police officer Celerissimo De Simone said that the pilot of the aircraft had sent out a distress call at 5:50 pm, just before the crash into the building near Milan’s main rail station.
The 30-storey building houses the Lombardy region’s government offices and is a Milan landmark.
‘‘It sounded like a bomb. The pavement shook like an earthquake,’’ said a woman identifying herself only as Lucia.
Said Luccheta Antonio, 52, a barber down the block: ‘‘It was shocking. The windows shook and the mirrors fell to the floor.’’
Police cordoned off the area as people gawked at the skyscraper. At least one ambulance was dispatched.
‘‘We believe it isn’t a terrorist attack,’’ said Carabinieri paramilitary Sergeant Vincenzo Curto. ‘‘The pilot might have taken ill or it was an engine problem.’’
Senate President Pera’s spokesman later retracted the terrorism theory and said he had spoken with the Interior Minister and the crash didn’t appear to be any kind of an attack.
Firefighters quickly put out the flames
A number of people were rescued from lifts that were shut down by the force of the crash.
The skyscraper, a symbol of Milan, was designed in the 1950s by architects Gio Ponti and is 416 ft tall.
Only minutes after the crash White House press secretary Ari Fleischer opened his press briefing with this statement:
‘‘The president just moments ago was informed about the incident in Milan. I have no additional information at all for you at this time. This is a breaking story and we don’t have anything else beyond that - the president has been informed.’’
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House chief of staff Andrew Card were the two who told Bush of the plane crash, Fleischer said.
‘‘I think you can presume that we will be - if we are not already - in touch with Italian authorities and will ascertain precisely what the facts are,’’ the spokesman said.