Seat­tle plane crash: 'heart­bro­ken' fam­ily re­mem­ber gen­tle man who meant no harm

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Levi Pulkki­nen in Seat­tle

The fam­ily of an air­line em­ployee who stole and later crashed a plane near Seat­tle have said they are “stunned and heart­bro­ken”, as au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gate how the ma­jor se­cu­rity breach hap­pened.

The fam­ily of Richard Rus­sell – who was a ground ser­vices em­ployee with Hori­zon Air, part of Alaska Air­lines – said the ac­tions of “Beebo”, as he was known to them, had come as “a com­plete shock to us”.

“It may seem dif­fi­cult for those watch­ing at home to be­lieve, but Beebo was a warm, com­pas­sion­ate man,” said their state­ment. “He was a faith­ful hus­band, a lov­ing son and a good friend. A child­hood friend re­marked that Beebo was loved by ev­ery­one be­cause he was kind and gen­tle to each per­son he met.

“As the voice record­ings show, Beebo’s in­tent was not to harm any­one and he was right in say­ing that there are so many peo­ple who loved him.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is fo­cus­ing on how a “sui­ci­dal” air­line em­ployee was able to steal a plane from Seat­tle-Ta­coma in­ter­na­tional air­port and fly for more than an hour be­fore the crash in which he is be­lieved to have died.

F-15 fighter jets were scram­bled to pur­sue the rogue air­craft af­ter it took off at 7.30pm on Fri­day and cir­cled south of Seat­tle be­fore crash­ing on Ketron Is­land in the Puget Sound wa­ter­way about 25 miles (40km) south­west of the air­port. Video footage shows smoke ris­ing from the crash site.

The Hori­zon Air plane was cap­tured do­ing large loops and other dan­ger­ous ma­noeu­vres. In recorded com­ments to air traf­fic con­trollers, the 29-year-old Seat­tle-area res­i­dent had in­di­cated he in­tended to crash the plane.

Rick Chris­ten­son, a for­mer co­worker, told the Seat­tle Times Rus­sell was “a quiet guy” who “seemed like he was well liked by the other work­ers”.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve Rus­sell used his se­cu­rity clear­ance to steal the Q400 tur­bo­prop plane from a main­te­nance area. He had clear­ance to ac­cess planes as part of his work, which in­cluded clean­ing and tow­ing air­craft, as well as bag­gage han­dling. He un­der­went a back­ground check when he was hired by Hori­zon in Fe­bru­ary 2015 and had been sub­jected to re­views ev­ery two years since.

Lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cials de­scribed the crash as a sui­cide un­re­lated to ter­ror­ism. Paul Pas­tor, the county sher­iff, said there was no in­di­ca­tion he had in­tended any harm to oth­ers. Pas­tor said the man “did some­thing fool­ish and may well have paid with his life”.

The man can be heard on au­dio record­ings telling air traf­fic con­trollers that he is “just a bro­ken guy”.

Hori­zon Air CEO Gary Beck said it was not yet clear how he had learned to start, taxi and fly an air­craft.

“We don’t know how he learned to do that,” Beck said dur­ing a Satur­day me­dia con­fer­ence. “Un­like a car, there’s not a key that you stick in and turn,” he said.

The emer­gency shut down the air­port, known as Sea-Tac, and the sur­round­ing skies. Flights were grounded with some pas­sen­gers tweet­ing that their plane stopped abruptly on the run­way.

The Sea-Tac con­trol tower rec­og­nized that an unau­tho­rized take­off was oc­cur­ring as the plane tax­ied to the run­way. Rus­sell ap­par­ently backed the plane up in or­der to reach the taxi­way, and then pro­ceeded to the run­way.

Air na­tional guard fighter jets based in Port­land, Ore­gon, rushed to the area within min­utes of the unau­tho­rized take­off. Ar­riv­ing ahead of sonic booms, they tailed the air­liner over the Cham­bers Bay golf course, which hosted the US Open in 2015, be­fore the pi­lot be­gan turn­ing bar­rel rolls over the Puget Sound.

“It was un­fath­omable, it was some­thing out of a movie,” wit­ness Royal King told The Seat­tle Times. “The smoke lin­gered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were fly­ing low.”

De­bra Eck­rote, a re­gional chief with the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board (NTSB), de­scribed the wreck­age of the air­craft as “highly frag­mented”. “The wings are off. The fuse­lage is kinda po­si­tioned up­side down,” Eck­rote said Satur­day morn­ing dur­ing a me­dia brief­ing.

“With the day­light, the fire’s out, we’ll be able to iden­tify the parts and pieces of the wreck­age and fo­cus on the ar­eas that we’re look­ing for,” she con­tin­ued.

Eck­rote said fighter pi­lots and the air traf­fic con­trollers worked to bring the plane down with­out loss of life. The Wash­ing­ton state gov­er­nor, Jay Inslee, praised the fighter pi­lots, tweet­ing: “Those pi­lots are trained for mo­ments like tonight and showed they are ready and ca­pable.”

The plane crashed in a wooded area of Ketron Is­land, a speck in Puget Sound be­lieved to be home to 12 peo­ple. Fire­fight­ers and po­lice boarded a ferry to ex­tin­guish the re­sult­ing blaze, which burned into the night.

“Our hearts are with the fam­ily of the in­di­vid­ual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Hori­zon Air em­ploy­ees,” Hori­zon Air chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Con­stance von Muehlen, said in a video state­ment.

Se­cu­rity con­cerns raised by the crash would likely be part of a month­s­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ci­dent.

“The great­est threat we have to avi­a­tion is the in­sider threat,” Er­roll Southers, a for­mer FBI agent and trans­porta­tion se­cu­rity ex­pert, told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “Here we have an em­ployee who was vet­ted to the level to have ac­cess to the air­craft and had a skillset pro­fi­cient enough to take off with that plane.”

Alaska Air­lines CEO Brad Tilden said the com­pany would re­view its se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures.

“It’s nat­u­ral to ask your­self what pro­ce­dures were there,” Tilden said dur­ing a Satur­day me­dia con­fer­ence. “In terms of im­prove­ments we might make as a com­pany or an in­dus­try … it’s too early to say.”

In the UK, Sa­mar­i­tans can be con­tacted on 116 123 and the­do­mes­tic vi­o­lence helpline is 0808 2000 247.In Aus­tralia, the cri­sis sup­port ser­vice Life­line is 13 11 14and the na­tional fam­ily vi­o­lence coun­selling ser­vice is 1800 737 732. In the US, the sui­cide pre­ven­tion life­line is 1-800-273-8255 and the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence hot­line is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).Other in­ter­na­tional helplines can be found atwww.be­frien­ders.org

AP

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton re­spond to the in­ci­dent. Pho­to­graph: Ted S War­ren/

Pho­to­graph: Bren­dan Mcder­mid/Reuters

Pas­sen­gers at Seat­tle-Ta­coma air­port werestranded Fri­day night.

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