The Austin Plane Incident: An Attack on the IRS?

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Trey Jones / AP

Smoke billows from a building in Austin, Texas, after a small plane crashed into it

The long, rambling rant posted on a website eerily reflected the angry populist sentiments that have swept the country in the past year. In it, a Joe Stack inveighed against intrusive Big Brother government, corrupt corporate giants, irrational taxes, as well as the "puppet" George Bush. "I choose not to pretend that business as usual won't continue," he wrote. "I have just had enough. I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt." And then Stack apparently got in a Piper Cherokee PA-28 at about 9:40 a.m. at an airport in suburban Austin, Texas, and flew the plane into a commercial building housing an IRS office, killing himself, seriously injuring two people on the ground and starting a conflagration that lasted several hours.

As the plane hit — between the first and second stories of the Echelon building in northwest Austin, about 10 miles from downtown — one eyewitness on the ground told a local television station that there was "giant fireball about 50 feet wide." The Echelon is part of a four-building complex of office buildings set in small office park near the intersection of two busy Austin highways. The exterior of the buildings are flat, black glass that just before the crash reflected clear, blue winter skies. "It sure was hauling. It was a really speedy dive," Jerry Cullin, a pilot, told KXAN, the local NBC affiliate. "It shot across the road going really fast." Cullin had stopped to get his midmorning coffee at the local Marie Callender's when he saw the plane swoop down. It was so low, Cullin said, he could see the plane's belly and thought he might get hit. The plane almost clipped one of the tall light poles lining the freeway before crashing into the building.

After the fireball, Cullin said, the black-glass windows blew out and the venetian blinds starting flapping in the wind. The building houses regional offices of the IRS and other federal agencies. As one unidentified office worker from the building said, "If you have problems with the IRS, this is where you come in person to work them out." According to news reports, 199 IRS employees work in the building, and all are accounted for. Toward the end of what appears to be his final note, Stack wrote, "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

It was not the only fire Stack apparently started. At about 8 a.m., the Austin Fire Department received a call from neighbors on Dapplegrey Lane, a quiet street about six miles north of the office park. A home there was completely engulfed in flames, according to neighbors. The home belonged to Joseph Andrew Stack III, a software engineer. "I heard a humongous boom," neighbor Dane Vick told the Austin American-Statesman, adding that he saw glass being blown out of the home as he called 911. Neighbors managed to pull Stack's wife Sheryl and his 12-year-old stepdaughter from the home after Stack allegedly set it on fire. Neighbors told local news that Stack's wife and her daughter had left the home Wednesday evening after Stack became angry, staying overnight in a hotel and returning this morning. The neighborhood is now roped off with crime-scene tape. Stack, according to neighbors, kept a Piper Cherokee at Georgetown Airport, a small suburban airport about 18 miles away.

The White House was quick to say the incident was not a plot by overseas terrorists. But was it terrorism nevertheless? In his note, Stack was very clear he was unhappy with the U.S. government. He complained about onerous and merciless taxation of individuals like him as well as corruption and the special treatment the executives of big corporations allegedly received after their companies failed. And he seemed to be as emboldened as any suicide bomber. In the Web note of more than 3,000 words, he wrote, "I ... know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at big brother while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won't continue; I have just had enough." He signed off, "Joe Stack (1956-2010)."