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Small Plane Hits High-Rise in Milan

Aired April 18, 2002 - 12:29   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We've got Miles O'Brien here with us now to give us -- Desidira, don't go away, though -- we've got Miles O'Brien now with us now to join us to give us a little bit better explanation perhaps of this Piper plane -- that's the only thing being described thus far of this tourist plane that impacted this building.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think tourist is probably another way of saying general aviation, which is to say a privately owned aircraft, flown typically by the owner or somebody their own pilot, It might have flown for charter purposes that's a possibility. Hence the tourist designation in this case. Let me just show you, we do not know what sort of Piper it is, I hesitate.

WHITFIELD: Yes. There are a lot of variations.

O'BRIEN: As the view shifts there, let me show you the fleet. This is the Piper aircraft fleet. All the way at the top is what is called a Piper Malibu Meridian, which is -- if you wanted buy new is $1.7 million single engine aircraft which has a tremendous amount of capability. And can fly for five hours for example, has a 262 knot capability nearly 300 miles an hour. And is a turbo prop aircraft which means it runs on jet fuel, which is sort of a derivative of kerosene.

Now jet fuel believe or not is actually less flammable than the kind of fuel used in general aviation aircraft that are piston aircraft, regular conventional engines. Let me just show you from the Malibu Meridian which would be the top of the line if you will.

I'll take you down to what is called a Piper Warrior, a derivative of the original single engine Piper low-wing aircraft, the Cherokee. And this is the type of aircraft that is kind of a stalwart of training aviation. Sort of an introductory aircraft which is owned by in general aviation fleets all over the world. And just to give you a sense of this aircraft, it's a four seater. The one we saw a moment ago, the Meridian, is a six seater able to fly up to 30,000 feet, another words commercial airline altitudes.

This aircraft, however, if in fact this is the aircraft. And once again all we know is Piper. So I'm just giving you some Piper aircraft to give you the sense of the range of possibilities here. But the Piper PA28161, the Warrior, has a conventional piston engine, has a maximum takeoff weight of 2,400 pounds, 1,100 kilograms, just a little more than a ton. You know, short wingspan, it's a very light aircraft obviously made of aluminum. It only carries 48 gallons of fuel. This is what is called, in the United States, 100 low lead, which is basically, a version -- a refined version of auto fuel, same combustibility essentially as automobile fuel.

WHITFIELD: Let me interject from Italian television. They're reporting that there was a technical problem being reported in that SOS call that came from the plane. The plane was apparently originated from Sofia, Bulgaria, and was making its way to Rome. We reported through the help of Italian television that an SOS call did come in from the plane to the control tower shortly before that impact.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, certainly if you are going through the panoply of possibilities, that might exclude the possibility of terrorism in this case. This could just be a plane crash, sad as that might be. This may not be something that conjures - certainly this conjures up recollections of September 11. But planes do in fact fall out of the sky, and unfortunately sometimes they strike buildings. But the fact there was radio transmission from apparently the pilot indicating that there was some difficulty or some loss of control certainly would lead you to believe there was a mechanical problem with the aircraft or some other type of difficulty.

But one thing I will you tell you is that unless it was the top of the line aircraft, if it was just a four-seat Piper Warrior, the one that is seen here on the web there. If you bring up that web shot, that small aircraft. There's no requirement for cockpit voice recorders. There's no requirement for flight data recorders, no black boxes as it were. That higher end aircraft you see because of the weight and capabilities, would very well -- might very well be mandated to have a cockpit voice recorder. So there might be some capability there. I'll show you that plane one more time.

Hard to say, though at this juncture, what kind of plane we are talking about with just the designation that it was a Piper. But this aircraft has more capability, a lot more speed, a lot more weight, and therefore might very well have some data for investigators as they try to understand what happened.

WHITFIELD: When we try to figure out, you know, the type of this plane. If this is at least the parameter, some sort of Piper tourist plane that it's being dubbed. How great a distance are we talking about? If we were getting different information from our sources, it could have originated from Sofia, Bulgaria, and now it could have originated possibly from Switzerland, but still en route to Rome. That seems like a pretty great significant distance for a plane that size.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes. And one thing to consider there as well when you're flying small aircraft, the mountains are the way there as well. If you're talking Switzerland to Rome, you need to have an aircraft that can attain quite a bit of altitude to get through the Swiss Alps. I don't know the low passes and the capability, but typically that smaller aircraft, the Warrior I just told you about, or the Saratoga, which I am showing you here. The Saratoga, you may recall, was the aircraft that John F. Kennedy was flying when he, his wife, and his sister-in-law died off of the waters of Martha's Vineyard.

But the Saratoga would have a practical ceiling or height of 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters, let's say, and so that would be one limitation. And just to give you a sense of the range on the Saratoga, as I go down here, I'm just doing this off the top of my head. It is long on cruise power, the Saratoga at 10,000 feet would give you about 948 nautical miles. So over 1,000 statute miles, 1,755 kilometers. That's a pretty good long run, that's going to take you a long time in one of those planes. It may not be comfortable doing that, but the fact is they're not being totally familiar with the distances right there without an atlas. That seems like a flight that would be capable and attainable by many of these aircraft that we see here on this new Piper Web site.

WHITFIELD: OK. What we're hearing right now, from Rai, which is the state-run Italian television station. They're reporting that the fire has been extinguished. Once again, this small plane struck the 25th and 26th floor, causing quite a significant fire and smoke there in Milan's tallest building. It is one of the world's tallest concrete buildings. This is the Pirelli building, it houses many federal and municipal government offices there.

It took place just as rush hour was beginning in that town. We don't know how many people were injured. We are only hearing from Rai that many injuries have taken place as a result. This is eerily similar to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center. In this case, the similarities are that you have a plane and you've got a building, but that is all we really know at this point. As well as several injuries.

We don't know exactly what caused this, all we know is that what is being reported from Rai as well is that an SOS did come from the plane to the control tower. We're not quite sure at this point, because we are hearing conflicting reports. The origination of this plane could have been Sofia, Bulgaria. It could have been somewhere in Switzerland, both of those paths ending up in Rome which is what is being reported from Rai.

And of course, a lot of this information is trickling in because investigators are just now getting there on the scene and trying to respond to what's most important which is rescuing those that they can and attending to those who are injured.

O'BRIEN: And I guess it's worth underscoring that point of the distress call. The distress call is something that is very significant difference from what we saw on September 11. And also if you recall the incident that occurred in Tampa, Florida, in the months following September 11 when the disturbed young man commandeered a small aircraft and flew into a building there. No distress calls there, as a matter of fact, sort of ignored the calls of controllers as it veered towards the Barnett Bank building there.

But this scene here is something that is unfolding as we speak. And while we all immediately have a flashback to that moment, it's worth underscoring that at least for now the indications are that there was some difficulty with that aircraft. The pilot indicating that very fact to controllers. And putting the plane in some degree of peril and least that's the early indication. Once again, you know, these kinds of things as you know, Fredricka, as they unfold we end up going through a lot of dead ends and cul-de-sacs.


O'BRIEN: And we just ask our viewers to bear with us as we sort of do our work right before them.

WHITFIELD: That's right. And just to reiterate that, that SOS call could indicate there was a mechanical problem. We don't know the intent or the motivation. What really proceeded this crash. We do want to make that very clear that the investigation is still in its very early stages.

O'BRIEN: Now another point to bring out here, depending on its -- we have such diverging information on the potential point of origin of this aircraft. It's very likely that it had already spent a great deal of fuel on its way, ascending to its altitude and reaching the point of Milan. Although there is still some distance to go before it reached Rome. The amount of fuel on board, while in the case of say of the Saratoga which I have been referring to, the Saratoga can carry about 100 gallons of fuel. It might be on the order of half of that, or a third of that, who knows. But it depends on where that aircraft of course, began its flight.

WHITFIELD: And did I understand you correctly? You said the capability or the range of capabilities of the distance a plane like this can travel roughly 1000 miles.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Once again, I've got to point out I'm talking about a whole fleet of aircraft here. And there's a range of -- just to you a sense of the single engine fleet of Piper. Yes. We can start talking about range for most any of their aircraft. But it's -- like I say until we find out a little bit more, it seems to be a fairly significant fire which ensued after this collision. And I am harkening back to that collision in Tampa which involved a small Cessna aircraft, with the limited amount of fuel. And it didn't seem as if there was -- well there wasn't quite as much fire or explosion.

I don't know how much fuel was on board that particular aircraft. So this was the factor that is difficult to determine until we really understand where that aircraft took off from. Was there a flight plan for example? I believe in Europe it's pretty routine for general aviation to file flight plans. In the United States, that doesn't always happen. So, there should be a fair amount of information and among the pieces of information that you indicate in a flight plan the amount of fuel on board, the amount people on board, you're point of origin, and the point of destination of course, intended altitude, intended flight path.

WHITFIELD: OK, let me just recap once again for those who are just joining us or perhaps need a refresher on what has taken place here. A small plane hit the 25th or 26th floor of the Pirelli Building which is in downtown Milan, Italy. It happened around 11:45 Eastern time, 5:45 Italian time at the height of rush hour there. This building, houses many Federal and municipal and other offices.

We don't know how many were in the building at the time of the impact of the plane. But floors one through nine have since then been evacuated as emergency crews responded very quickly there to attend to any people who were injured. We're hearing from Rai Italian television, the state-operated television station there, that many people have been injured, but we do not have an exact number as of yet.

Floors one through nine have once again been evacuated. Rescue efforts, are underway. This Pirelli building is the tallest building in downtown Milan, and is one of the world's largest concrete buildings designed in the '50s. And an SOS call did come in from the plane to the control tower stating that there might be a mechanical problem before the impact took place.

And we're still trying to get some confirmation, because we are getting conflicting reports on the origin of that flight path. It could have been Bulgaria, Sofia, Bulgaria, more specifically, or somewhere in Switzerland we're learning through Italian television there. And that this plane was en route to Rome.

We don't know how many people were on board. We're not even quite clear exactly what kind of plane, only that it is a small plane. And Miles O'Brien is here helping us to understand what kind of Piper, it just might have been. Because there are so many variations it is very difficult to discern what crews maybe working with there.

O'BRIEN: You know as we look through the list there is probably nine or ten variations of the Piper single engine, they have a couple of twin engines as well.




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