WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and his family returned to the White House last night while the Secret Service and other investigators tried to unravel the mystery of a 38-year-old Maryland man who apparently stole a small plane from a rural airfield, then flew it to the White House where he crashed and died.
The Clintons were staying across Pennsylvania Avenue, in Blair House, when Frank Corder, an Aberdeen native, crashed a 1971 Cessna 150 onto the White House lawn at 1:49 a.m. yesterday. The first family had moved for several days while the White House air conditioning system underwent repairs.
Secret Service officials said they did not believe the pilot had a political grievance against Mr. Clinton -- and were not sure he even meant to hurt himself, let alone the president.
But relatives and friends said the dead man had a history o alcohol and drug abuse and was despondent over the recent breakup of his marriage. The New York Times quoted friends as saying he'd been using crack cocaine recently and had once talked of stealing a plane and killing himself.
But his brother John suggested another motive, noting that Mr. Corder had been impressed by a young German pilot who landed a Cessna in Moscow's Red Square in 1987 and "made a big name for himself."
The fatal episode in the heart of the nation's power structure plunged the president's protectors into the same sort of perplexed embarrassment that consumed the Kremlin after German student Mathias Rust flew low enough to evade Soviet radar and land his plane at the Soviets' seat of power.
Authorities were at an apparent loss to explain how someone could steal a plane, fly through or around two of the East Coast's major air traffic control zones -- over Baltimore-Washington International and Washington National airports -- follow 17th Street at low level directly into the aircraft exclusion zone around the National Mall, make a J-turn at the Washington Monument and head directly at the White House back yard. All this without provoking any security reaction.
No shots were fired as the plane approached the White House at treetop height. According to Special Agent Carl Meyer, security guards radioed the alarm and had time only "enough to run for cover."
The plane skidded 50 feet across the South Lawn, sheered some branches from a magnolia tree planted when Andrew Jackson was president in the 1830s, and came to rest against the mansion, two stories below the private presidential apartment and within sight of the Oval Office.
The nation's security services will now move quickly to attempt to plug the security gap that allowed the plane to enter a strict security zone around the White House, officials said. Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen, who oversees the Secret Service, ordered a review completed within 90 days.
New security concerns
The incident raised new concerns about the protection of the first family against the possibility of a terrorist air attack. The first thing the Secret Service checked the plane's wreckage for yesterday was explosive devices.
"The first thing we had to determine was, what was the situation?" said Agent Meyer. "I mean, was this just a plane that ran out of gas? Did somebody have a heart attack? We just didn't have a good sense of what was involved here. Or was it a diversion? Was something going to come?"
Fire and rescue services and a bomb disposal unit were called. The pilot was declared dead by the Washington medical examiner at 3:25 a.m., apparently from injuries sustained in the crash.
Sen. David Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas and a close frien of Mr. Clinton's, noted that millions of dollars had been spent on ++ White House security, adding: "I just don't know why it did not function. Maybe it malfunctioned."
The embarrassing security breach started, officials said, whe the red-and-white Cessna 150 was stolen from the Harford County Airpark. The airport manager, Joseph V. Kessner, said the plane was still there when he left for home at about 7 p.m. Sunday.
Plane rented earlier
Earlier in the day, the plane had been rented and was returned with enough fuel for slightly more than 3 hours of flying left in its 13 gallon tank, Mr. Kessner said.
Mr. Corder, according to his brother, John, 41, had held a pilot' ++ license for about 10 years. "He certainly knew what he was doing around planes, and how to fly one. That's for sure," he said.
The precise flight path Mr. Corder followed was not disclosed, but aviation experts said a direct flight from the Harford County Airpark to downtown Washington would have taken him directly over the air traffic control tower at BWI Airport and on into the air control zone of Washington National Airport.
It was not known if either of the airport radar systems picked up the plane, but Federal Aviation Administration officials were examining tapes to see if the flight was tracked. But the Secret Service said that unless the plane had a tracking device, known as a transponder, turned on at the time, Mr. Corder could have flown under radar detection as he neared the White House.
Besides the Secret Service and the FAA, other agencies involved in the investigation include the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
At about 2:45 a.m., Mr. Clinton was informed of the crash bWhite House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta -- and then went back to sleep. Hours later, he went to the White House in jogging clothes but did not, aides insisted, view the wreckage.
In remarks yesterday to several hundred young people who have signed up for his National Service program, the president sounded as though he were more concerned about the White House than his own personal safety.
"On his second night here, our second president and the first person to live in the White House, John Adams, wrote, 'I pray heaven to bestow the best blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it,' " Mr. Clinton said.
"That prayer has been answered," he added. "In times of war and peace, in hard times and good times, the White House has remained an enduring symbol of our democracy. It tells our people and all those around the world that the mission of America continues."
Separately, Mrs. Clinton told a group of guests: "This has bee quite an unusual day here at the White House."
Security officials are investigating whether there was any connection between Mr. Corder's flight and the Clintons' visit Sunday to Aberdeen.
Hospital mentioned in speech
While there, to worship with members of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, Mr. Clinton mentioned the nearby Perry Point Veterans Hospital, where Mr. Croder underwent alcohol detoxification last year and his estranged wife, Lydia, is a licensed practical nurse.
Asked if Mr. Corder's action was politically motivated, Special Agent Meyer said: "Preliminarily, no. It does not appear to be directed toward the president."
White House officials felt it was important to project a business-as-usual air yesterday -- but it was difficult.
Security in front of the White House was tightened, snarlintraffic in downtown Washington. Presidential aides were somber-faced and quieter than usual. And Mr. Clinton's main public event of the day -- inducting several hundred young people into the National Service program -- had to be rescheduled.
Because the aircraft wreckage had not been removed in time, the swearing-in ceremony was postponed for two hours, then held on the much smaller North Lawn of the White House, which meant that some of the young volunteers were not able to see the president.
Conforming to long-standing practice, officials refused to discuss the security system at the White House. Ronald Noble, Treasury undersecretary for enforcement, told reporters: "Just as you had a security measure or alarm system in your house, you dTC wouldn't give me the code for it, I'm not here going to give you at this point any specific answer until I complete the review."