A Texas man crashed a small plane into a building containing a federal tax office Thursday in what officials suggested was a deliberate attack on a US government institution.
The pilot, who left an apparent suicide note on the Internet bitterly railing against the US authorities, was unaccounted for after the attack, which left two people in a critical state in hospital and injured 11 others.
The plane struck the second floor of the seven-story building in Austin, Texas at 9:56 am (1556 GMT) and burst into flames in a massive explosion that forced people to flee out of the windows, witnesses and officials said.
"This appears to be an intentional act by a sole individual and it appears this individual was targeting federal offices in that building," Austin police chief Art Acevedo told reporters.
Fighter jets were scrambled in response to the incident, while the shocking images stirred for many Americans bitter memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda.
"Today in the city of Austin, we saw a deliberate and intentional attack against the federal building," said congressman Michael McCaul. "It is something that exposed the weakness we have seen since 9/11."
"This was a Piper Dakota, one of the smallest private aircraft manufacturers. When you look at the devastation behind me, almost bringing down the entire building, it is really extraordinary."
Claire Cowand was driving to work when she saw the plane fly overhead and veer into the building with its wings on a slight angle.
"There was a huge fireball, a huge explosion," she told AFP. "It was incredible. It was unreal. It was terrifying, actually."
Officials stressed that the attack did not appear to be linked to international terrorism, although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointed out that it could still be considered an act of domestic terrorism.
"I am going to wait though for all the situation to play out through the investigations before we determine what to label it," Gibbs said, adding that President Barack Obama was being kept informed on the investigation.
The authorities said the body of the pilot, identified as Joseph Stack, had not been recovered and that he was officially "unaccounted for."
Stack was believed to have set his own Austin home on fire before heading out in his personal plane from a nearby airport.
Given the massive fireball which tore through the building, Acevedo said it was a blessing that so few people were injured.
"I believe there were some heroic actions this morning," he said, praising people in the building and the emergency crews who responded.
A rambling suicide note signed Joe Stack was discovered online that blamed the government for an unfair tax system which he apparently said ruined his life.
The unverifiable note concluded that "violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."
The writer said he hoped his actions would cause a "knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions (that would make) people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are."
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) launched two F-16 fighter aircraft to conduct an air patrol after the crash, which witnesses produced a huge fireball and sent black smoke billowing into the sky.
"The building shook, it was almost like an earthquake," a witness named Cynthia who was in a neighboring building in the complex told CNN.
Cynthia and her office mates left the building and saw people running towards the building that got hit by the plane.
"People were on the second floor. They couldn't get out. They were hanging out the windows screaming for help."
Luckily there was a truck from a glass company nearby so people grabbed the ladders and were able to help the people escape, she said.
Congressman McCaul said the attack could be considered an act of terrorism.
"It is like when you kill 13 people at a military installation, that is an act of terrorism, but when you fly an airplane into a federal building to kill people, it depends how you define terrorism, but it sounds like (it) to me."
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