BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- The government grounded thousands of crop-dusters across the country for a second straight day Monday amid fears the planes could be used in an airborne chemical or biological attack.
The move came after it was learned that one of the suspected hijackers in the attack on the World Trade Center, Mohamad Atta, had shown interest in crop-dusters and that another person now in federal custody had downloaded information about the planes, Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
The "intelligence community came to us and encouraged us to shut down the crop-dusters," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Scott Brenner said.
Ashcroft told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the FBI had gathered information raising fears that the small farm planes could be used in a biological or chemical attack. But he said there was "no clear indication of the time or place of these attacks."
It was the second time the planes have been grounded since the FAA cleared the way for most flights to resume Sept. 14, three days after terrorists slammed planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon.
James Callan, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, said the ban covered about 3,500 agricultural aviators.
The association posted a message from the FBI on its Web site, urging members to "continue to be vigilant to any suspicious activity relative to the use, training in or acquisition of dangerous chemicals or airborne application" of the chemicals.
The FBI is believed to be investigating a group of Middle Eastern men - including Atta - who repeatedly visited a Florida fertilizer company before the Sept. 11 attacks.
J.D. "Will" Lee, general manager of South Florida Crop Care in Belle Glade, said Monday he told FBI agents that the men, in groups of two or three, visited nearly every weekend for six or eight weeks before the attacks. The visits included the weekend before the assaults.
Co-worker James Lester told the FBI that one of the men was Atta, who is believed to be one of the suicide hijackers aboard the first airliner to hit the trade center. He said Atta was persistent with questions about a crop-duster during a visit in February.
"I recognized him because he stayed on my feet all the time. I just about had to push him away from me," Lester said.
Lee said the men pestered employees with "odd questions" about his 502 Air Tractor crop-duster. He said they asked about the range of the airplane, how much it could haul in chemicals, how difficult it was to fly and how much fuel it could carry.
During one visit, they followed Lester around, asking questions while he was working on one of the planes. Another time, they carried video equipment and asked to photograph the inside of the cockpit.
Lee said he declined their repeated requests.
"I wouldn't spend any time talking to them or telling them anything because I didn't think it was any of their business," Lee said.
In Belle Glade, a small community in the Florida Everglades surrounded by sugar cane fields, police closed one entrance to the airport where Lee's business is based and allowed only employees to enter the second entrance. The airport is about an hour's drive from the beachfront communities where some of the suspected hijackers stayed before the attacks.
The Washington Post has also reported that investigators found a crop-duster manual among the possessions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was detained after he sought flight training in Minnesota and the school grew suspicious.
Ray Dyson, chief pilot of Southeastern Aerial Crop Service in Fort Pierce, said crop-dusting aircraft - typically carrying 200 gallons of fuel and 500 to 600 gallons of fertilizer and liquid spray - require extensive training and are extremely difficult for a novice pilot to fly.
"When they're heavily loaded they take a very deft hand to fly," Dyson said. "One false move and you fall out of the sky and crash."
Florida officials have checked with all registered aerial applicators about their security measures, said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department.
When flights resume, pilots will be required to notify state officials of their flight times and aircraft tail numbers, McElroy said.
"It's damn sure going to ruin our industry and us, but it's a small price to pay for the security of our nation," said Jerry White, an aerial applicator based in Orlando.
The ban affected the state's spraying for mosquitoes as part of its effort to battle the West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis viruses.
In New Jersey, helicopters used for spraying against mosquitoes have been grounded indefinitely because of the attacks. In Georgia, the ban will affect cotton growers who need to defoliate plants before harvest.
Kelly Wingate, owner of Wingate Flying Service of Camilla, Ga., said the groundings were inconvenient but pilots and growers understood the need.
"The aerial applicators and the farmers - you won't find bigger patriots," he said. "We know what this country is going through and we're in 100 percent support of what they're doing."
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National Agricultural Aviation Association: http://www.agaviation.org
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