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A nuclear threat and a plane flown into a building: Tampa after 9/11

Twenty years later, former mayor Dick Greco recalls his angst after the terror attacks.
The Tampa Tribune headline about the teenager who flew a plane into downtown Tampa's Bank of America building.
The Tampa Tribune headline about the teenager who flew a plane into downtown Tampa's Bank of America building. [ Times (2002) ]
Published Sep. 8

TAMPA — Weeks after al-Qaida flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Dick Greco learned that an attack might be planned for Tampa.

The FBI was tipped that terrorists armed with nuclear weapons might be piloting a ship toward Port Tampa Bay.

“That was the longest few hours of my life,” Greco, who was mayor of Tampa at the time, said about the wait to learn the city was safe.

On January 5, 2002, Tampa had another scare when a plane was piloted into a downtown building. The teenage pilot was not part of al-Qaida. He died and no one else was injured.

In the past, Greco said, he would have immediately mourned the senseless death. But on that day, his first reaction was relief that it was not an al-Qaida attack.

“I later questioned my morality,” Greco said. “That time after 9/11 changed me. It changed everyone.”

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco poses for a portrait at his balcony in Tampa in 2020.
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco poses for a portrait at his balcony in Tampa in 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Greco was keynote speaker at an event at the Hilton Tampa Downtown on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. As he exited the building, aids told him that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

“Like most everyone, I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Greco said. “That type of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in the United States. Then the next day, we had to prepare for that type of thing happening here.”

Tampa was considered a terror target because it is home to MacDill Air Force Base, which is Central Command for military operations in the Middle East

“We went over every scenario,” Greco said. “How do we protect our drinking water supply from being tainted? What if terrorists sink a ship in our channel to cut off supplies to Tampa? You name it, we talked about it.”

International Plaza was to celebrate its grand open on the evening of Sept. 11. That event was cancelled, but the city allowed a ribbon cutting on Sept. 14. When it happened, there was no large party with $100,000 in food and drinks, but there were sharpshooters on the mall’s roof to protect against terrorism.

“I never thought I’d see something like that in Tampa,” Greco said.

The NFL cancelled all games that weekend, a decision with which Greco agreed.

“That was too many people in a stadium next to the airport,” Greco said. “Someone might have been crazy enough to do something.”

A few weeks later, things got even scarier.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor at the Sulpher Springs Pool Complex.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor at the Sulpher Springs Pool Complex. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Jane Castor, then commander of the Tampa Police Department’s intelligence unit, received the call from the FBI.

“It was late in the evening,” said Castor, now Tampa’s mayor. “The FBI told me that they had information that two nuclear war heads were coming on a ship into Port Tampa. My first thought was concern first and foremost for my family sitting there and the entire community.”

But she could not make the information public until it was confirmed and a city evacuation plan was developed. Otherwise, there would be chaos.

“My next thought,” Castor said, “was that I had no point of reference for this.”

Still, an attack through Port Tampa Bay was among the scenarios the city had gone over in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, so she made the appropriate calls, one of which was to Greco. He was dining with friends at Bern’s Steakhouse.

His first thought was to call his wife, who was out of town, and then tell the friends, but Greco knew that was not an option.

“We didn’t know if it was real,” he said. “My friends asked if I was okay. I had to say everything was fine. They then discussed what to order for dessert as I wondered if a nuclear attack was coming. It was surreal. I looked at my phone all night, waiting for the call. Every time it rang, I hoped it was an update.”

That call came hours later as Greco sat alone in his bedroom.

Military planes with equipment that can detect nuclear devices had flown over every ship heading to Florida via the Gulf of Mexico, Greco said he was told, and nothing found.

“I almost fell to the ground in relief,” he said.

A few months later, Greco and Castor would again wonder if Tampa was a terrorist target when the plane slammed into a downtown building.

“I was in the gym at the police station when I got that call,” Castor said. “The crash was just two blocks over, so I was the first one on the scene.”

A single-engine Cessna 172R had been flown into the 28th floor of the Bank of America building. The front half of the plane was inside the building. The tail was sticking out.

“I found out in short order it was not an accident,” Castor said. “You have to imagine all the possibilities but I also did not want to jump to a conclusion.”

Greco was at his Harbour Island home when he received the news. He was told the size of the plane and that there was minimal damage, he said, but couldn’t help picturing the building coming down like the Twin Towers had.

“I rushed into downtown,” Greco said. “I was afraid to look up.”

The pilot, 15-year-old Tarpon Springs resident Charles Bishop, had stolen the plane from National Aviation of Clearwater, where he was taking lessons. He died on impact.

A handwritten note found in the wreckage expressed support for Osama bin Laden and the terrorist attacks, but law enforcement said Bishop acted alone and not in connection with al-Qaida .

Bennie Holder, police chief at the time, told the media that the crash was a suicide.

Greco admits he silently celebrated that it was not part of a coordinated terror attack. Others, he said, told him they felt the same way.

A few days later, Bishop’s mother told CNN, “He was my shining star. He was the light of my life. There is nothing I would not do for that child. Everybody loved him.”

She blamed her son’s actions on Accutane, an acne-treating drug linked to suicide and depression.

“I felt terrible when I learned more,” Greco said. “I should have immediately felt sorry for him. But that is what 9/11 did to us. It had us so worried about the major attacks coming that other things felt small, even though every death is a major tragedy.”

Not long after that, Greco said, he attended a United States Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. The agenda included a trip to the former site of the Twin Towers in New York.

“There was a large wall made of wood that went on for several hundred feet,” Greco said. “It’s where family put flowers and notes for those who died. I remember one about a family missing having picnics with their father in the backyard. I started crying. That attack stole our innocence. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back.”