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Small, stolen plane slams into Tampa skyscraper

The plane's tail hangs from the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida.
The plane's tail hangs from the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida.  

TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- A stolen, single-engine plane being pursued by a Coast Guard helicopter on Saturday slammed halfway up the 41-story Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, authorities said.

The pilot, a 15-year-old high school student, died in the crash.

The incident occurred about the same time two small aircraft crashed in Colorado and California, but authorities said they found no connection in the events. "None of the incidents appear to be related, and there is no indication of terrorism," said Scott McClellan, White House deputy press secretary.

The teen jumped into the Cessna 172 at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in nearby St. Petersburg and took off alone at about 5 p.m. EST, police said.

"We believe he departed without anyone's knowledge, or their giving him the OK to leave," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Greg Tita.

As the plane took off, air-traffic control alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, which dispatched a helicopter to intercept the Cessna, said Lt. Charlotte Pittman of the Coast Guard. The helicopter's crew, yards away from the Cessna, signaled for it to land at an airport just south of Tampa. Instead, the airplane struck the building without appearing to try to avoid it, witnesses said.

One killed in California plane crash 

The unauthorized take-off also prompted authorities to scramble two F-15 jets. The jets, part of the 125th Fighter Wing based at Homestead Air Force Base in Miami, Florida, arrived at the west-central Florida city within moments, but not before the Cessna had crashed, said Capt. Richard Bittner, the base's public information officer.

Commercial airports in both Tampa and St. Petersburg temporarily suspended operations following the incident.

The plane's wings tore from the fuselage when it struck the skyscraper near its 23rd and 24th floors, said a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.

The plane's tail was hanging from the side of building, located at 101 E. Kennedy Blvd., and windows on at least two stories had shattered, according to reports. Despite fuel leaks, no fire erupted and the structure remained in tact and safe, city fire and police officials said.

The pilot, a ninth grader at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida, had taken flying classes for two years, Tita said. He was "pre-flight authorized," meaning he was authorized to do a pre-flight check but not to get into the plane alone, said a government transportation official.

The teen was at the airport with his mother and grandmother performing a pre-flight check when he got into the plane and took off, Tita said.

The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident. FAA officials were on the scene Saturday night.


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