Prominent figure in Seattle business killed in Ariz. helicopter crash


by By KING Staff and Associated Press

Posted on February 15, 2010 at 1:17 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 15 at 6:16 PM

PHOENIX -  A prominent figure in Seattle politics and one of the area's best known business owners has died. The president of Services Group of America, Thomas Stewart, 64, was killed in a fiery helicopter crash in Arizona Sunday.

Officials with the Scottsdale-based food service distributing and real estate firm confirmed Stewart's death on Monday.

According to a press release, the SGA helicopter was en route to Scottsdale Air Park from the Flagstaff area when it crashed. SGA reported that a total of five passengers were aboard the helicopter when it departed from the Flagstaff area.

Peter K. Smith, president and COO of SGA, called Stewart a "visionary."

"He had a clear and concise continuity plan for the enterprise in place and was completely confident in the current leadership team," he said.

Arizona State Sen. Jonathan Paton eulogized Stewart on the Senate floor on Monday, saying Stewart died in the crash along with his wife and one of his children.

The Eurocopter EC135 went down and burst into flames at about 3 p.m. MST Sunday in an area known as Cave Creek, just north of Phoenix.  Friends say Stewart, his wife and daughter were flying from their Paradise Valley Arizona home to their ranch farther north.

It's not clear what caused the helicopter to crash, but 911 callers reported smoke and loud noises and saw parts flying off the helicopter before it crashed.

"I saw the helicopter flying in the air and that stuff that goes round, up, the rotors were coming apart and then I said, 'OK something wrong is gonna happen,"' witness Nicoleta Nork told KTVK-TV. "And I just saw it rolling, rolling and boom, then big smoke and yeah, terrible."

The area is a mix of rolling hills, dry desert washes and lots of houses. The chopper came down in a wash between two homes, Smith said.

"It's a pretty horrific crash," she said. "It's just obliterated."

Although Stewart spent much of his life in Washington and still has property here, he moved his family and his company to Arizona in 2006 after Washington state enacted a new inheritance tax. The company is Arizona's second-largest privately held company

King County Council Member Peter von Reichbauer learned of his friend's death from one of Stewart's sons late Sunday night.

"I don't think we've all his family and his friends have got our hands wrapped around the idea that he's not going to be around saying something next week.

Von Reichbauer and Stewart have been friends for 35 years, sharing a love for business and politics.

Stewart was well known in Washington politics, hosting annual picnics on his Vashon Island estate for the Republican party.

In later years he had to pay $5 million in fines for illegal campaign contributions. But his good friend says in no way should that be his legacy.

"He always stood up for what he believed in, rightly or wrongly, Tom was his own man and he went into businesses and he leaves this world as his own person," said von Reichbauer.