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FBI recovers body, black box at site of Ketron Island crash

The FBI has recovered the flight data recorder and parts of the cockpit voice recorder from the stolen airplane that a Horizon Air employee crashed into Ketron Island Friday night. The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has also confirmed that the remains are that of Richard “Beebo” Russell

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“The FBI has also located human remains among the aircraft materials. While the focus of our investigation thus far has centered on Richard Russell, 29, of Sumner, Washington, the FBI is awaiting the results of a review by the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office.” 

“I have dozens of personnel out at the crash site right now; I had 30-40 folks out overnight interviewing co-workers and family members,” said FBI  Special Agent Jay Tabb in the hours following the  crash. “This is going to take a little bit of time.”

The family of Richard “Beebo” Russell, the man who stole the plane, has since spoken out, asking for understanding and privacy during this time.

“He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend,” his family said in a statement on Saturday night. “This is a complete shock to us. We are devastated by these events.”

“As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying that there were so many people who loved him. We would like to thank the authorities who have been helpful and respectful, Alaska Air for their resources, the community, his friends and family for their incredible support and compassion, and Jesus, whose steadfast love endures.”

Russell worked as a ground service agent for Horizon for 3.5 years. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office says that he acted alone when he took the empty airplane from Sea-Tac Airport at around 8 p.m. Friday.

It is believed that he had no flying experience, but was somehow able to take a Horizon Air Q400 turboprop airplane and take off from Sea-Tac. The airport’s control tower was in contact with the man as he flew over Puget Sound, attempting to get him to land the plane. But recorded conversations imply that he had no intention of landing safely when he took it. The plane flew south along the coast, doing maneuvers, and was followed by two F-15 jets which attempted to escort the stolen aircraft back to Sea-Tac. The jets were scrambled out of the Portland area and created a sonic boom en route to the stolen airplane. They reached the Horizon craft within minutes of the theft. The jets followed until the crash. They did not shoot it down.

All flights were temporarily grounded at Sea-Tac Airport for a “security breach” Friday night. A ground stop was ordered through 11 p.m., according to FAA. Horizon Air released this video statement immediately following the incident.

Brad Tildon, CEO of Alaska Airline, which operates Horizon, said Saturday that the incident is going to cause some changes at the company.

“Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can assure that this doesn’t happen again at Alaska Air Group or any other airline,” he said.

Richard “Beebo” Russell

The Seattle Times has identified the Horizon employee as Richard Russell of Sumner, a quiet man who was well liked by coworkers. He was married, religious, and went by the nickname of “Beebo.”

Russell had a blog as part of a college communications course where he states he was born in Key West, Florida and moved to Wasilla, Alaska when he was seven. He met his wife in Oregon in 2010; their wedding was in 2012. The couple ran a bakery on the Oregon Coast before moving to Sumner. The Bakery was featured in an article in Coos Bay’s The World newspaper.

The blog, last updated in 2017, features photos from his travels and a video about his work as a baggage handler at Sea-Tac. It also includes audio clips of interviews with fellow ground service agents, or merely just sounds of aircraft. He states that he went to work for Horizon because it allowed him to fly to Alaska and visit family.

Gary Beck, CEO of Horizon Air said questions remain as to how Russell was able to fly the plane from Sea-Tac in the first place. A Horizon twin propeller aircraft, such as the one that was stolen, is a turboprop airplane used for short trips in the Northwest, such as from Seattle to Spokane or Oregon. It seats about 76 passengers, and cruises at 414 mph. It is nearly 108 feet long with a 93 foot wingspan.

“Commercial aircraft are complex machines, they are not as easy to fly as say a Cessna 150,” Beck said. “So I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.”

Tildon also provided more details about Russell, and said he was vetted for security. Russell worked as a ground service agent, which does everything from de-ice airplanes to handling baggage and guiding planes on the runway. He worked for the company since February 2015. The Times reports that Russell worked on a tow team, which moves planes in and out of the runway. A tow team has two members — one that drives a tow truck, and another in the cockpit of the airplane who communicates with the tower. That person can operate the plane’s brakes.

“There was a couple different criminal background checks we run on our employees, he had a CETA badge with the Port of Seattle, so that’s another,” Tildon said. “He worked his shift yesterday, we believe he was in uniform. His job is to be around airplanes. He was tow certified. Airports have a non-secure side and a secure side; he’s meant to be on the secure side. That’s part of the fulfillment of his job responsibilities.”

Fire on Ketron Island

The plane crash caused a massive fire on Ketron Island. Jet fuel combined with excessively dry conditions this season caused the flames to spread quickly.

Fire crews boarded a ferry in Steilacoom shortly after the crash and sailed to the island. The fire was contained shortly after midnight.

Ketron Island, just off the shores of Steilacoom, has few residents. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor estimated that about 12 people live on the island. He said the plane crashed in a wooded area and not near any homes.

Witnesses

Witnesses on the shoreline saw the airplane chase before the crash. Some report that the plane made a hard turn before crashing to the ground.

“It banked in towards the land a little bit, then out over toward the island,  and then it just went down on the far side of the island and a really large cloud of smoke came up,” a woman told KIRO 7. “Shortly after that, we heard the bang from it.”

Witness Randy Foley told KIRO Radio has lived near Joint Base Lewis-McChord for nearly 50 years.

“We’re like, ‘Something is not right here,'” Foley said. “I mean, this is two F-15s escorting a commercial flight and we are like, ‘Something doesn’t seem right here.’ Of course, you always hope for the best. Then about 30 seconds later, we saw the big plume of black smoke. Something just happened.”

“It was really outside anything I’ve ever seen before,” he added.

Sharon Hawes heard a boom, but initially thought it was activity at JBLM.

“So we were sitting in the lounge chairs, watching the sunset, then we saw the plane, and the jets behind it, and my first thought was it was something at McChord, so late at night,” Hawes said. “Then we heard a third jet. Then the sunset was done, we went up to the house, they were putting things away at the pool and that’s when they heard the boom. Then my husband put it all together and turned on the news, and said ‘That was the plane.'”

“It was low enough that we could see the Alaska name, and the Alaska, ya know, face,” another witness told KIRO 7. “It was flying really low and banking really sharp, which is really unusual for a plane to be doing, and then being followed by the two jets.”

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