Thursday, February 18, 2010

Plane crashes into Northwest Austin building

A small single-engine plane crashed into a building in Northwest Austin Thursday morning, sparking a massive fire and forcing evacuations.

The crash happened near MoPac and Highway 183 just before 10 a.m.

Smoke could be seen pouring from a building in the Echelon complex -- Echelon 3 -- on traffic cameras and in video and photographs send in by KVUE viewers and reporters.

KVUE’s Noelle Newton reported most of the windows are blown out. People were evacuated and standing along roads outside the complex. A witness told KVUE that it didn't appear the plane was having any trouble before it crashed, but it was flying very low.

Some witnesses reported that they thought the plane was headed for their building. Witnesses say the impact felt like an explosion.

Austin fire officials say one person is unaccounted for. Fire officials said they were conducting an office-to-office search. The building houses offices of the Internal Revenue Service.

Assistant Austin Fire Chief Harry Evans says two people have also been taken to a hospital. Their conditions were not immediately known.

U.S. law enforcement officials say they are investigating whether the crash may have been an intentional act by the pilot.

The officials said authorities are trying to determine if the pilot intentionally targeted nearby office space of the Internal Revenue Service. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. A third official said authorities are pursuing reports that the pilot may have been disgruntled with the IRS.

As a precaution, the Colorado-based North American Aerospace Defense Command launched two F-16 aircraft from Houston's Ellington Field, and is conducting an air patrol over the crash area.

The IRS said in a statement that the small plane struck its Austin offices, where 190 of the agency's employees work. Officials say they are still trying to account for all the workers.

Georgetown airport officials say federal officials have sealed the airport. The pilot may have stored his plane in one of the hangars.

A federal law enforcement official has identified the pilot in the plane crash as Joseph Stack, a software developer, and says investigators are looking at an anti-government message on the Web linked to him.

The official said authorities are looking for a motive at Stack's company Web site. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an investigation still in progress.

The Web site featured a long note dated Thursday denouncing the government and the IRS in particular. It cited the man's problems with the agency.

The long note dated today on Stack's Web site says "Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer" to his past problems with the IRS.

It also says, "I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

The letter was removed from the cite. A message cites a request from the FBI as part of the reason for removing the letter.

KVUE News covered a house fire near Metric and Parmer that was reported just two hours before the plane crash. The house, which neighbors said belonged to Stack, appeared to be destroyed.

Documents from the FAA also show the plane was registered to Stack.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo cautioned that the reports are hearsay and the investigation is preliminary. He said the plane was not stolen and the crash was not an act of terrorism. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the situation was contained.

Traffic in the area is being diverted. Power is out in the area. Austin firefighters say the power was shut off in order to fight the fire. Crews were still fighting to put out the fire, but officials said they were fighting the flames offensively, but were pulled back out of fear the building could collapse. It was unclear when the power would be restored and roads reopened.

The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate.

The White House says President Barack Obama has been briefed about the crash.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs says the president was briefed by counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan shortly before leaving the White House for a trip to Colorado and Nevada. Gibbs says the Department of Homeland Security is investigating all angles of the crash and its cause.

Gov. Rick Perry says with information still "flowing in," he's cautious to relay details he's been told about the crash of a small plane into an Austin office building.

Perry told reporters Thursday in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land that he's hearing "a lot of different story lines" and that Texas law enforcement authorities would assist as appropriate federal officials looking into the crash.

But he says any time an aircraft hits a building, particularly after 9/11, "there is great speculation as to why and how that occurred."

KVUE News has multiple crews on the scene, and KVUE's Tyler Sieswerda and Terri Gruca are on the air.

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