Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FBI and Alaska Airlines were headed to Ketron Island on Saturday morning to gather evidence from the site where a Horizon employee crashed a stolen airplane.
Debra Eckrote, NTSB regional chief, said investigators will focus on recovering the voice-data recorder and flight-data recorder from the wreckage. They also will work to recover the remains of the 29-year-old Pierce County man thought to be the only person on the plane.
“We just need to get out there and look at the wreckage,” Eckrote said at a press briefing at the Steilacoom ferry dock. “We might get lucky and find them pretty quick — we may be out there all day.”
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams issued a statement Saturday afternoon.
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“The FBI is leading the investigation of Friday night’s unauthorized takeoff and crash of a Horizon aircraft,” Dietrich-Williams said. “We are working with the NTSB and countless local and state partners to process the scene of the crash on Ketron Island. 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 and private partners.
“I know there is considerable interest in the subject responsible, but please be patient as we will provide details when we have thoroughly reviewed all available information.”
Alaska Airlines executives said at a news conference at Sea-Tac late Saturday morning that the employee who took the plane was authorized to be both on the tarmac and inside planes and that no security protocols were violated. His work as a ground agent included handling baggage, tidying airplanes and operating tow vehicles to move aircraft, and he was “fully credentialed and had access to that area legitimately.”
“That’s their job, to be around these planes,” said Brad Tilden, president and CEO of Alaska.
Horizon president and CEO Gary Beck said that to the airline’s knowledge the man who took the plane did not have a pilot’s license.
The stolen plane was parked in an area called Cargo 1 on the north part of Sea-Tac when it was taken. It appeared the ground worker used a tow vehicle to rotate the plane 180 degrees on the tarmac before climbing into the cockpit, taxiing to a runway and taking off, Alaska executives said.
The plane was not scheduled to make any other flights Friday night.
“This was an unauthorized flight,” Tilden said.
The plane left the ground at 7:32 p.m. and air-traffic controllers lost contact with it at 8:47 p.m., Tilden added.
Eckrote said the plane went down in an area covered with heavy brush and trees. The plane was “highly fragmented and the wings are off,” she said.
A fire sparked by the Friday night crash “is pretty much out,” Eckrote added. The Department of Natural Resources said two acres burned.
The sparsely populated island remained close to ferry traffic Saturday morning.
It was quiet on Ketron Island by midafternoon.
The pounding of raindrops during adown pour and the occasional horn blast from trains along the mainland south of Steilacoom were the only things to break up the silence.
The few residents on the Puget Sound island, U.S. Census population 20, who were present for the crash were reluctant Saturday to discuss what they saw and heard.
FBI investigators, deterred by the deluge, packed up around 4 p.m., after Pierce County medical examiners recovered the body of the man thought to be Richard “Beebo” Russell.
“It’s in a billion pieces,” one Pierce County sheriff’s deputy working on the island said of the plane.
The late-afternoon roar of Department of Natural Resources fire crews clearing damaged trees with chain saws at the crash site could be heard throughout the wooded island. The path leading from the road to the crash site is scattered with sharp debris and damaged trees.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command said Saturday it dispatched two F-15C alert aircraft from Portland to intercept the plane.
“The fighters were directed to fly supersonic to expedite the intercept,” according to a NORAD news release.
They intercepted the plane near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“NORAD fighters were working to redirect the aircraft out over the Pacific Ocean when it crashed on the southern tip of Ketron Island in the southern end of Puget Sound,” the news release states. “NORAD fighters did not fire upon the aircraft.”