Austin Plane Crash – Intentional Act or Terrorism?

February 19, 2010

Austin, Texas, Police Chief Art Acevedo stopped short of calling the crashing of a small plane into a commercial office building in northwest Austin on Feb. 18 a terrorist act, but U.S. Representative Mike McCaul said he wasn’t so sure it couldn’t be considered one.

The Piper Cherokee PA-28 piloted by Joseph Andrew Stack, 53, crashed into a multi-story office building that housed a U.S. Internal Revenue Services office with 190 employees shortly before 10 a.m. on Feb. 18.

Witnesses said the crash created a huge fireball and blast that shook neighboring buildings. The blast caused extensive damage to the structure and Austin firefighters fought to put out blazes for most of the day.

At a media briefing Wednesday afternoon Acevedo said he considered the incident a criminal act committed by a lone individual. Stack, he said, is also connected to a fire that burned down his Austin home. The fire started shortly before Stack allegedly flew the plane into the Echelon office building at 9430 Research Blvd., also known as U.S. 183.

Congressman McCaul at one point said he believed it was an act of domestic terrorism akin to the shooting at Fort Hood in Central Texas late last year. “This was obviously a deliberate intentional attack on a federal building,” McCaul said at the press briefing. “It’s something that I’ll be working with the police chief and the FBI to get to the bottom of this and to find out how we can better protect the American people.”

Stack, a software engineer with an apparent grudge against the federal government over tax issues, had posted a “manifesto” on his Web site railing against the Internal Revenue Service, the Catholic Church, the federal bureaucracy and big business. Toward the end of the lengthy blog attributed to Stack he wrote: “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.” He signed it: “Joe Stack (1956-2010).”

While Stack apparently acted alone, terrorism exclusion issues might arise in the course of determining insurance liability for both the plane and the damaged building, said an attorney with expertise in insurance coverage issues. Exclusions might apply if the act is considered to be domestic terror or an “attack based on some form of civil disobedience/political oriented mischief,” said Brian Martin, an attorney with the Texas-based law firm, Thompson, Coe, Cousins and Irons. He said an attack on the IRS might be construed as being politically oriented.

As to the house, even if it is determined that the fire was started as an intentional act by the homeowner, the spouse may not be without recourse when it comes to insurance coverage. Texas has an “innocent spouse” rule, said Beth D. Bradley, an attorney with Tollefson Bradley Ball & Mitchell L.L.P., who also has a specialty in insurance coverage. As long as the spouse is not found to be complicit in the intentional act or try to cover it up, she should be eligible for half of the coverage amount under Texas’ community property law, Bradley said.

Two Bodies Recovered

By Wednesday afternoon, two individuals had been transported to the hospital and one person, an IRS employee, was unaccounted for and 13 others had been treated for burns and heat inhalation injuries. Authorities said Thursday morning that two bodies had been found, one presumably the pilot and the other thought to be the IRS employee.

Austin Police Chief Acevedo attributed the low rate of injuries to an exceptional response by Austin police, firefighters and emergency response personnel.

He said the FBI had taken control of the investigation and it would be up to them to determine whether the crash was a terrorist act.

There was “extensive damage to the building” Acevedo said, but that it would take structural engineers to determine just how badly the building was damaged.

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