AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A software engineer furious with the Internal Revenue Service launched a suicide attack on the agency Thursday by crashing his small plane into an office building containing nearly 200 IRS employees, setting off a raging fire that sent workers fleeing for their lives.
At least one person in the building was missing.
A federal law official identified the pilot as Joseph Stack and said investigators were looking at a long anti-government screed and farewell note that he apparently posted on the Web earlier in the day as an explanation for what he was about to do.
In it, the author cited run-ins he had with the IRS and ranted about the tax agency, government bailouts and corporate America's "thugs and plunderers."
"I have had all I can stand," he wrote in the note, dated Thursday, adding: "I choose not to keep looking over my shoulder at 'big brother' while he strips my carcass."
Stack, 53, also apparently set fire to his house about six miles from the crash site before embarking on the suicide flight, said two law enforcement officials, who like other authorities spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on.
The pilot took off in a single-engine Piper Cherokee from an airport in Georgetown, about 30 miles from Austin, without filing a flight plan. He flew low over the Austin skyline before plowing into the side of the hulking, seven-story, black-glass building just before 10 a.m. with a thunderous explosion that instantly stirred memories of Sept. 11.
Flames shot from the building, windows exploded, a huge pillar of black smoke rose over the city, and terrified workers rushed to get out.
The Pentagon scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from Houston to patrol the skies over the burning building before it became clear that it was the act of a lone pilot, and President Barack Obama was briefed on the crash.
"It felt like a bomb blew off," said Peggy Walker, an IRS revenue officer who was sitting at her desk. "The ceiling caved in and windows blew in. We got up and ran."
Stack was presumed dead. At least one person who worked in the building was unaccounted for and two people were hospitalized, fire officials said. About 190 IRS employees work in the building.
Gerry Cullen was eating breakfast at a restaurant across the street when the plane struck the building and "vanished in a fireball."
Matt Farney, who was in the parking lot of a nearby Home Depot, said he saw a low-flying plane near some apartments and the office building just before it crashed.
"I figured he was going to buzz the apartments or he was showing off," Farney said. "It was insane. It didn't look like he was out of control or anything."
Sitting at her desk in another building a half-mile from the crash, Michelle Santibanez said she felt vibrations from the crash. She and her co-workers ran to the windows, where they witnessed a scene that reminded them of 9/11, she said.
"It was the same kind of scenario, with window panels falling out and desks falling out and paperwork flying," said Santibanez, an accountant.
The building, situated in a heavily congested section of Austin, was still smoldering six hours after the crash, with much of the damage on the second and third floors.
The entire outside of the second floor was gone on the side of the building where the plane hit. Support beams were bent inward. Venetian blinds dangled from blown-out windows, and large sections of the exterior were blackened with soot.
Andrew Jacobson, an IRS revenue officer who was on the second floor when the plane hit with a "big whoomp" and then a second explosion, said about six people couldn't use the stairwell because of smoke and debris. He found a metal bar to break a window so the group could crawl out onto a concrete ledge, where they were rescued by firefighters. His bloody hands were bandaged.
The FBI was investigating. The National Transportation Safety Board sent an investigator as well.
In the long, rambling, self-described "rant" that Stack apparently posted on the Internet, he began: "If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, 'Why did this have to happen?'"
He recounted his financial reverses, his difficulty finding work in Austin, and at least two clashes with the IRS, one of them after he filed no return because, he said, he had no income, the other after he failed to report his wife Sheryl's income.
He railed against politicians, the Catholic Church, the "unthinkable atrocities" committed by big business, and the government bailouts that followed. He said he slowly came to the conclusion that "violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."
"I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well," he wrote.
According to California state records, Stack had a troubled business history, twice starting software companies in California that ultimately were suspended by the state's tax board, one in 2000, the other in 2004. Also, his first wife filed for bankruptcy in 1999, listing a debt to the IRS of nearly $126,000.
The blaze at Stack's home, a red-brick house on a tree-lined street in a middle-class neighborhood, caved in the roof and blew out the windows. Elbert Hutchins, who lives one house away, said the house caught fire about 9:15 a.m. He said a woman and her teenage daughter drove up to the house before firefighters arrived.
"They both were very, very distraught," said Hutchins, a retiree who said he didn't know the family well. "'That's our house!' they cried. 'That's our house!'"
Red Cross spokeswoman Marty McKellips said the agency was treating two people who live in the house.
Associated Press writers April Castro and Jay Root in Austin; Devlin Barrett, Lolita C. Baldor and Joan Lowy in Washington; and Melanie Coffee in Chicago contributed to this report, along with the AP News Research Center.