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Horizon Air employee stole, crashed plane on Pierce County island

What we know about the plane stolen from Sea-Tac Airport that crashed on Pierce County's Ketron Island and the ongoing FBI investigation.
Credit: John Waldron

Story Highlights

  • Richard Russell stole an empty plane from Sea-Tac Airport before crashing on Pierce County’s Ketron Island.
  • Russell was an employee of Horizon Air and had a security clearance. Officials do not believe he had a pilot’s license.
  • The plane was in the air for more than an hour before crashing.
  • Russell told air traffic controllers he is “just a broken guy.”
  • The FBI located the plane’s black box along with human remains from the wreckage.

Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air officials said an employee who stole an empty plane from Sea-Tac International Airport on Friday night flew more than an hour before crashing on a small island in Pierce County.

"To our knowledge, he didn't have a pilot's license. Commercial aircraft are complex machines. No idea how he achieved that experience," said Gary Beck, Horizon Air CEO.

Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, said Richard Russell took off at Sea-Tac at 7:32 p.m. and lost contact with air traffic control at 8:47 p.m.

"All of us at Alaska and Horizon are deeply saddened by last night's unauthorized flight with the Horizon Q400 aircraft that resulted in the loss of life in individual involved," said Tilden. "We want to express our sincere sympathy to his family, loved ones and co-workers."

WATCH: FBI, Alaska Airlines news conference on stolen plane crash

No passengers or crew were onboard. The Pierce County Sheriff's Office believes Russell, a ground service agent, acted alone and the incident was not related to terrorism. Tilden said the airlines was working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) to answer questions about the unauthorized flight.

The FBI is leading the investigation and working with the NTSB and local agencies to process the crash scene.

"We are going to be thorough, which means taking the time needed to scour the area, delve into the background of the individual believed responsible, and review every aspect of this incident with all appropriate public & private partners," FBI spokesperson Ayn Dietrich-Williams said in a released statement.

Alaska Airlines said the aircraft involved was a 76-seat Horizon Air Q400 turboprop plane. The plane landed upside down and was "highly fragmented," NTSB said Saturday.

The aircraft crashed on Ketron Island in Pierce County shortly after 8:45 p.m., igniting a fire in a wooded area in the south end of the island. West Pierce Fire reported a water supply issue made for a difficult firefight, but the blaze was contained to brush and did not spread to any homes. It was contained Saturday at 1.8 acres, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

RELATED | Firefighters battle more than flames after Ketron Island plane crash

Crews constructed a hand-line around the fire, mopped it up where possible, and are beginning to shift through and remove aircraft debris. This process could take several days, according to DNR.

On Sunday, the FBI recovered the flight data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage on Ketron Island. The FBI also said human remains were found at the scene. The Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed that Russell died in the fiery wreckage.

Russell was identified as a 28-year-old Pierce County resident. Authorities initially said Russell was a mechanic but Alaska Airlines later said he was believed to be a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes.

RELATED: Horizon Air employee had higher-level security clearance, specialized training

Russell was able to tow the Q400 out of a cargo area on the northern edge of the airport and redirect it using a tractor. This is normal activity in the cargo area, according to former NTSB investigator Greg Feith.

Russell "probably wouldn’t have drawn suspicion by anybody, given the qualifications,” Feith said.

His motive was not clear, but Russell could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy."

LISTEN: Worker who stole empty plane talks with air traffic control before crash

Russell's family and friends spoke Saturday for the first time after the crashing, saying they were "in complete shock."

“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” said Mike Mathews, a friend of Russell's.

Video showed the plane doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on the Puget Sound. John Waldrop shared the following footage from Chambers Bay Golf Course:

Mark Reger was standing in his driveway near Steilacoom when he saw the planes fly overhead.

"We looked across the water there's this huge fireball coming up off the west coast of Ketron Island, followed by smoke. There were some fire planes in the air. It clearly seemed immediately like there was a plane crash," he said.

"It's super scary when you think about how fast those planes are moving, the distance from Ketron Island to these houses in minuscule. It's really scary to think what might have happened under slightly different circumstances."

Alaska Airlines, the parent company of Horizon, released the following statement late Friday night:

"Alaska Airlines believes a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air was the individual responsible for flying the Horizon Q400 without clearance from Sea-Tac International Airport around 8 p.m. tonight. The plane, which was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for passenger flight, crashed about an hour later in a wooded area on Ketron Island in rural Pierce County. No ground structures were involved at the crash site. Military jets were scrambled from Portland, but it does not appear that these jets were involved in the crash of the Horizon aircraft. This individual who took the aircraft, who has not yet been positively identified until remains are examined, is believed to have been the only person on the plane when the plane was taken from a maintenance position at Sea-Tac. First responders are at the crash site. Appropriate government agencies, including NTSB, FAA and FBI, have been notified."

Two F-15 Air National Guard fighter jets from Portland chased down the plane while it was still in the air. The fighters did not fire on the plane and they did not appear to be involved in the crash.

RELATED: F-15s from PDX that intercepted stolen plane kept ‘people on the ground safe'

An air traffic control operator attempted to guide Russell to Joint-Base Lewis McChord. "We're just trying to find a place for you to land safely," the operator said.

"There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile," the controller added, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there," the man responded, later adding "This is probably jail time for life, huh?"

EXTENDED AUDIO: Horizon employee talks with air traffic control in cockpit

National Air Traffic Controller Association President Paul Rinaldi praised the air traffic controller who communicated with the worker.

“We especially acknowledge the contributions of the controller who worked this aircraft and communicated with the individual at the controls. This controller works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), an FAA facility located in Burien, Wash., just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide."

RELATED: Witness accounts of plane stolen from Sea-Tac Airport

Flights out of Sea-Tac, the largest commercial airport in the Pacific Northwest, were temporarily grounded during the drama. About 75 flights were delayed, nine were diverted to other airports, and five were canceled, according to Sea-Tac Airport. Some planes circled in the air or sat on the tarmac.

"They said there was some kind of emergency somewhere on the runway. After that, we just sat there for 40 minutes. But of course, everyone was just pulling out their phone and finding out what's going on and seeing this crazy story," said one air passenger.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Saturday morning that President Donald Trump was "monitoring the situation." He's currently at his New Jersey golf club.

Spokesmen for the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration directed inquiries to local authorities. However, the FAA said it would provide full support to agencies investigating the incident.

"While we are deeply saddened by the loss of life that occurred, we are proud of the exemplary performance of our air traffic control professionals as this stressful situation unfolded," an FAA spokesperson said in a statement.

Gov. Jay Inslee thanked the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets and said in a statement "there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding tonight's tragic incident."

KING 5's Brian Price, Kelsey Caulfield, Liza Javier, Jen King and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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