Plane Slams Into Milan Skyscraper

A small plane crashed into the 25th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Milan today, killing at least three people.

It was the second time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks that a plane has struck a high-rise building, and the crash raised fears of another terrorist attack. But local officials now say it was probably an accident.

The plane carried only a pilot, who was killed. Dozens of people in the Pirelli building were injured after several floors of the 30-story building caught fire. At least 15 were taken to the hospital, and gaping holes could be seen on both sides of the slim structure.

The crash happened during the evening rush hour, as office workers were ending their day. At the time of the impact, 300 of the 1,300 people that normally work there were still in the building, Italy's ANSA wire service said.

The building was cleared, and the fire brought under control. A local reporter said the crash damaged the 23rd through the 29th floors, which were being restored and weren't occupied at the time.

A man who was on the 21st floor at the time the plane hit said the building was evacuated in an orderly fashion.

Italian firefighters said they doubted the tower was structurally affected, because it is held up by two large cement pylons at opposite ends of the building, and the plane crashed into the center.

The Pirelli building houses the administrative offices of the local Lombardy region and sits next to the city's central train station.

Allayed Fears

The National Agency for Flight Security in Italy said they can exclude the hypothesis of terrorism. The plane stuck to its flight plan from Locarno, Switzerland to Milan's Linate airport, it said.

A transport official told Reuters the plane had reported problems with its undercarriage and was circling the city ahead of trying to land.

Police officer Celerissimo De Simone told The Associate Press the pilot of the aircraft sent out a distress call at 5:54 p.m. just before crashing.

Italian TV said the pilot's SOS involved a technical problem.

The identity of the pilot remained unclear. In an interview with Swiss television, the country's consul in Milan said he believed the pilot was a Swiss citizen, but ANSA quoted Lombardy authorities identifying the pilot as an Italian.

Italian wire services said the pilot was a 68-year-old retired man who had had 5,000 flying hours. They also said he had two children, one of whom is a Swissair pilot.

Italian flight safety officials are working on two hypotheses at the moment: that the pilot fell ill, or that there was smoke on board before the crash.

The plane was identified as a Rockwell Commander — a small twin-engine plane.

Reminders of a Dark Day

U.S. officials told ABCNEWS they had no indication the crash was a terrorist attack. Neither American nor Italian forces were on heightened alert, they said.

The FBI has sent personnel to help in the crash investigation, an unnamed FBI official told the AP.

Italy, and in particular, Milan, have been a particular focus of counter-terrorism efforts. U.S. officials have called a mosque and cultural center in Milan "the main al Qaeda station house in Europe."

In April 2001, authorities arrested the alleged leader of an al Qaeda cell that plotted to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The alleged leader, Essid Sami Ben Khemais, also had met with Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, before his arrest, reported The AP.

In March, the State Department issued a warning for American citizens traveling in Milan and three other Italian cities during Easter, but did not mention al Qaeda in particular.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also angered many Muslims by calling Western civilization "superior" to Islam.

He also said that he hoped "the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism". Later, he said his remarks were taken out of context.

Berlusconi is on his way back to Italy from Bulgaria to deal with the crash, and a crisis center is being set up.

Moments after the crash, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said at his lunchtime press briefing: "We don't have anything else beyond that — the president has been informed."

"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," he said.

The Italian crash is the second time this year a plane has hit a skyscraper. On Jan. 5, a 15-year-old boy crashed a stolen plane into a building in Tampa, Fla. He was the only casualty in an apparent suicide.

ABCNEWS' Rome bureau and John McWethy at the Pentagon contributed to this report.