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Towboat crew dropped everything to respond to Ketron Island crash

A stolen Horizon airplane crashed on Ketron Island in south Puget Sound, causing a fire in a wooded area. (KIRO 7)

Towboat operator Ryan Johnson with Western Towboat Company was on his vessel near DuPont Friday night, preparing to take out two barges as the sun was setting. Suddenly, a passenger airplane buzzed over them followed by two military jets.

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“It flew right over us,” Johnson told KTTH Radio’s Jason Rantz. “I didn’t think too much of it. It was a weird noise and I wasn’t following the news at that time. We heard a loud bang, turned around and we saw the black smoke coming from the island there.”

“Right before that, my deckhand saw the plane bank, and that was the last he saw of it because it went on the other side of the tug boat,” he said.

Johnson’s crew hadn’t heard the news yet; that a Horizon turboprop airplane was stolen from Sea-Tac Airport, reportedly by a suicidal employee, and was cruising over Puget Sound with two F-15 military jets in pursuit. All they knew at that time was that a plane had crashed on a small island with a handful of residents nearby. It spurred them into action, dropping everything to get to the island to see if they could help.

“We immediately fired up the boat and went and checked it out and tried to help out as best we could,” Johnson said. “We weren’t really able to do much. But we didn’t know the plane was hijacked, so we were more concerned if there were people onboard, how big the fire was, and warning people on the island that might not have known what had happened.”

Eventually, the crew found out through text messages and social media that the plane was stolen. Johnson got on the radio with the Coast Guard and reported where the plane had crashed.

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He estimates that fire crews and other first responders arrived on the shore about 15 minutes after the crash. But they still had to get to the island.

“But there was no vehicle to get up there, and they had to wait for the ferry to get over, so 40 minutes maybe,” Johnson said. “It’s in a remote area to get to. It’s not an easy place to get to because the ferry only goes from (the mainland) to Anderson Island, and you have to call, maybe, to get off (Ketron) Island.”

Johnson’s crew got onto the island via the ferry dock and started knocking on doors.

“I think there’s 13 houses,” Johnson said. “And my crew knocked on a bunch of houses, like five, and no one was there. They got a hold of some ladies there. And they found a gentleman who heard about it and they drove around with him to find it.”

By that time, the ferry with first responders was coming to the island so the tow boat had to move. The crew boarded and moved aside. They reported that the crash couldn’t even be seen from the road. They could see the flames far off in the distance, however.

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“It was that remote,” Johnson said. “When we were going to the ferry dock, we had to go past the south end and we could see the fire going. Ketron Island has some large cliffs on it, 250 feet maybe. When we were going by, we could see the fire going … we could see the fire started and were hoping it wouldn’t take off and destroy the island there.”

“It’s a bizarre event that happened,” he said. “Obviously, the pilot got (killed) … we kind of got lucky with that; it could have been a lot worse. I wish we could get people help before it gets to this point, ya know.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekdays 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on AM 770 KTTH Radio.

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