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Air Force One lookalike buzzes Lower Manhattan; residents panic, two injured, White House apologizes

April 27, 2009 |  3:08 pm

Military planes buzz lower Manhattan April 27, 2009 

Officials of the White House Military Office told authorities in New York last week that they were planning to buzz the Statue of Liberty in a low photo opportunity this morning with a lookalike (back-up) of Air Force One -- a Boeing 747. Oh, and that the jet would be followed by an F-16 chase plane.

Nobody questioned the military office's decision. And officials in the Big Apple neglected to share the information with local residents.

So, like a scene from Orson Welles' version of "War of the Worlds," thousands of residents and office workers in downtown Manhattan and New Jersey fled their high-rises in such panic that at least two people were treated for minor injuries in the rush to leave buildings.

Scarred by memories of terrorists hijacking plans and slamming into skyscrapers, the residents of Lower Manhattan did what any sane person who lived through 9/11 would do -- they assumed the worst.

"Everybody panicked," said Daisy Cooper, a Merrill Lynch worker in Jersey City who lost a nephew on 9/11. "Everybody was screaming, and we all ran downstairs. I'm devastated." In an interview with NBC, she added, "Everybody was running; we didn't know why we were running. We just knew it was a plane; there we go, 9/11 again."

By day's end, the Obama White House had put out an apology from Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, which left more questions than it answered.

“Last week, I approved a mission over New York," he said. "I take responsibility for that decision. While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”

New York officials were outraged. Mayor Michael Bloomberg railed against the "dumb" city official who failed to notify him of the military's plans, and against the federal government for showing such "poor judgment ... [that it] defies the imagination."

The New York Daily News reported that the New York Police Department said it had been told of the Pentagon's "aerial photo mission" last Thursday but insisted it had been ordered to stay quiet about it.

As the finger-pointing continued on who messed up, one thing was clear. The colossal failure of judgment from Washington was sure to put a damper on the administration's otherwise triumphant celebration of its first 100 days in office.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: Jason McLane / Associated Press

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