04/19/2002 - Updated 04:55 AM ET

Milan plane crash believed to be an accident

MILAN, Italy (AP) — The pilot of a small plane that slammed into a Milan skyscraper reported trouble with his landing gear and had been speaking with air traffic control, officials said, indications that terrorism was not his aim.

The crash Thursday killed the pilot and two other people and rekindled fears of a Sept. 11-type attack on a landmark building in Italy's financial capital, even though Italian officials said it was probably an accident. The number of injured, put originally at 60, was revised downward Friday to 36, with 11 of them still hospitalized.

The twin-engine Rockwell Commander punched a hole through the slim, 30-story Pirelli building in downtown Milan, and smoke billowed out for hours into the clear afternoon sky. The 25th and 26th floors were gutted; the sidewalks below were littered with shards of glass, office papers, broken flower pots and other debris.

The pilot, a Swiss resident believed to be in his 60s, was thought to be the only person on board the plane.

"I heard something like the engine of a plane dying out, and then I heard a terrible explosion," said Raffaele Taccogna, who was tending bar at the nearby Atlantic Hotel. "I certainly thought of the September attacks in the United States," he said. "It really looked like the same thing."

The pilot — who was on a 20-minute flight from Locarno, Switzerland, to Milan — had started landing procedures at Linate airport when air traffic controllers alerted him that he wasn't lined up with the runway, the Italian air traffic controller's association said.

The pilot reported "a little problem with the landing gear," and the control tower instructed him to move to the west of the airport until it was fixed, a statement from the association said, adding that the pilot didn't issue a distress signal as officials had previously reported.

The control tower contacted the pilot again after seeing he was drifting to the north, in the wrong direction. The pilot said he was fixing the problem with his landing gear, and the tower instructed him to move back into position to approach the runway.

But the pilot again didn't get into the right position, the statement said. The control tower then lost contact.

Interior Minister Claudio Scajola told reporters in Rome that "initial reports point to an accident."

One witness, Fabio Sunik, said the plane was on fire before it crashed. The plane did not try to change course, "but just went straight in," said Sunik, a sports journalist. "Then I saw rubble falling from the building."

Some 1,300 people work in the building, which houses local government offices, but it was not known how many where still there when the crash took place — not long after working hours ended.

There was a discrepancy over the death toll. Earlier, a civil defense official, Carlo Leo, reported five dead: the pilot, two office workers and two passers-by. However, the vice president of the Lombardy region, Vivian Beccalossi, reported only three dead late Thursday: the pilot, a cleaning woman and a government lawyer.

The Milan prefect's office, which had reported four dead earlier in the day, also revised the toll to three late Thursday.

Rescue workers found a survivor three hours after the crash on the 25th floor, where one of the dead was found.

The collision damaged a building seen as the symbol of Milan, the heart of Italy's financial and industrial world. Built in the 1950s, the 415-foot-high building once housed the headquarters of the tire giant Pirelli.

The pilot was identified by police as Luigi Fasulo, a resident of Pregassona, Switzerland. His nephew, also Luigi Fasulo, told Italian state television that the crash was an accident.

"Surely there was no intention on the part of my uncle to crash into the building," he said. "He was a person who loved life."

The director of the Locarno airfield, Sandro Balestra, told Swiss television that the pilot had been known in the area for at least 30 years.

The plane was a Rockwell Commander 112TC, built by North American Rockwell in the 1970s, said Wirt Walker, chief executive Aviation General Inc., which owns the company that makes an upgraded version of the aircraft.

It was the second time since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that a plane has struck a high-rise building. On Jan. 5, a 15-year-old boy crashed a stolen plane into a building in Tampa, Fla. He was the only casualty.