The family of a suicidal baggage handler who hijacked an empty Alaska Airlines plane in Seattle on Friday night before taking it for a joyride and crashing to his death said on Saturday they feel ‘stunned and heartbroken’.
Richard Russell, a 29-year-old Horizon Air employee, was remembered in a family statement read out by friends at a news conference as a ‘faithful husband’ to his wife, Hannah, and a ‘good friend who was loved by everyone’.
‘It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,’ they wrote, referring to Russell’s nickname.
The family described his death as a ‘complete shock’, adding: ‘We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.’
They also referred to recordings of a conversation between Russell and air traffic controllers in which he said he ‘didn’t want to hurt anyone’ and apologized to his family for what he was about to do.
‘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 love him,’ they wrote.
Russell, who was described as suicidal by investigators, hijacked the 76-seat plane at around 8pm on Friday after taking the aircraft from the maintenance area.
Although he had security clearance to be near planes, he did not have a pilot’s license and it is unclear how he learned how to fly. One expert said he could have picked up some skills by using a computer flight simulator.
Witnesses described seeing the plane performing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops as the military planes directed it away from highly-populated areas and towards Ketron Island, where it crashed into a ball of flame.
‘He did some aerobatics in the airplane that I was shocked to see,’ said Rick Christenson, a retired operational supervisor for Horizon Air.
‘And for him to do that I would think that he either played in a simulator or what. It looked pretty amazing to me. Maybe it was luck, I don’t know.’
During the hijacking, Russell joked with air traffic controllers about how he would be jailed for life for stealing the plane, before telling them he was a ‘broken man’ with ‘a few screws loose’.
He may also have hinted at having used some form of flight simulator in the past in an exchange when he told the officials he did not need help because, ‘I’ve played some video games before’.
Meanwhile, Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said he was baffled about how Russell picked up the flying skills. ‘We don’t know how he learned to do that,’ he said.
‘Commercial aircraft are complex machines. No idea how he achieved that experience.’
Russell had worked for Horizon Air at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for nearly four years, according to his LinkedIn account, as a ground service agent and an operations agent.
Horizon Air COO Constance von Muehlen said in a video statement that ‘our hearts are with the family of the individual on board as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees’.
Officials said during a press conference on Saturday that Russell used a push back tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees before take off.
Debra Eckrote, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said it was conceivable that a ground service agent would be able to start an airplane.
‘They don’t necessarily use a key, so there’s switches that they use to start the aircraft,’ she said.
‘So if the person has basic understanding — from what I understand he was support personnel, ground personnel — they probably do have at least a basic understanding on how to start the aircraft.’
Russell was born in Key West, Florida and moved to Alaska when he was seven years old, according to a 2017 blog post. He met his wife, Hannah, in 2010 while they were both in school and married one year later. It doesn’t appear that they had any children.
According to Russell’s blog, he and Hannah opened a bakery called Hannah Marie’s Bakery in North Bend, Oregon and ran it for three years.
In 2015, the couple relocated to Seattle ‘because we were both so far removed from our families’, Russell wrote.
‘Failing to convince Hannah of Alaska’s greatness, we settled on Sumner because of its close proximity to her family,’ he posted.
While living in Seattle, Russell started working for Horizon Air writing that he enjoyed being able to travel to Alaska in his spare time. Russell, who was pursuing his bachelor’s degree for social sciences from Washington State University, said he wanted to move up in his company to one day work in a management position.
The Horizon Air worker, however, also had other dreams, writing on his blog that he was considering becoming a military officer.
Russell’s blog is filled with pictures of him and his wife traveling across the globe. The 29-year-old also shared pictures from his wedding day and several videos showcasing what he does at work.
In one video, apparently for a class project, Russell introduces himself as ‘Beebo Russell’ and says he ‘lifts a lot of bags’ at his job.
‘Like a lot of bags,’ he says. ‘So many bags.’
He went on to say that because of his job he’s been able to visit places like France, Idaho, Mexico, Ireland and Alaska. Russell ended the nearly two-minute long video by sharing photos of his family.
Rick Christenson, retired from Horizon Air, told the DailyMail.com that Russell was ‘quiet’ and ‘a nice kid’.
Christenson didn’t supervise Russell’s team, but said he saw the 29-year-old in passing while at work.
‘He always had a nice smile,’ he said. ‘He seemed quiet, and he always had a smile. The people that knew him said he was a nice guy.’
Christenson said he was sitting on his deck Friday night at his Tacoma home with his wife, his cousin and his cousin’s wife when he saw the Horizon Q400 fly over his house.
‘All of a sudden one of the Horizon Q400s came over the house at 500 feet, followed by two F-15s; one was high, one was low,’ Christenson said, adding that he knew something was wrong because the plane was flying way too low.
He added in a separate interview: ‘Everybody’s stunned… that something like this would happen. How could it? Everybody’s been through background checks.’
The former supervisor said he grabbed a pair of binoculars to watch the aircraft, admitting that he was ‘scared’ and ‘concerned’ because he didn’t know what was going on.
‘He was doing a lot of weird flying, weird turns,’ he said, ‘but he was coming back towards us, towards our way.’
Christenson said while the plane was over the water it did a 360 degree roll ‘and went into a steep dive’.
‘He brought the one wing up and the whole airplane rolled and as it rolled it went into a dive. It looked control,’ he said, adding that the plane pulled up with less than 50 feet between the nose of the aircraft and the water.
Christenson said two minutes later there was ‘big plume of black smoke’, indicating the plane had crashed.
The retired Horizon Air worker also said he doesn’t understand how Russell was able to back the aircraft onto the taxiway by himself, although he said it is possible.
‘It’s not the procedure,’ he said, explaining that usually a two-person crew moves aircraft.
Christenson said under normal circumstances one worker is in the cockpit communicating with with the tower, and a second person is on the tractor used to push the plane.
Authorities have said that Russell was in the aircraft alone, but don’t know how he moved the plane and took off undetected.
Russell’s main role as a ground service agent was to load and unload bags, direct aircraft for takeoff, and de-ice planes in the winter.
According to a job posting, ground service agents are paid roughly $13.75 an hour and as a full-time employee they receive benefits, travel privileges for themselves and family members and are eligible for a bonus program.
Nowhere in the job description does it mention that ground service agents are permitted to fly planes.
During a press conference on Saturday morning NTSB investigator Debra Eckrote said they are trying to determine ‘what his process was and where the aircraft was going’.
‘He’s ground support so, you know, they have access to aircraft,’ she said, adding that that we’re ‘very lucky’ the plane went down on a ‘very underpopulated island’.
She said the plane came to rest in a thick underbrush on Ketron Island, and first responders had to ‘blaze a trail’ to get to the wreckage.
Eckrote said the plane is ‘highly fragmented’ and the wings were torn off in the crash. She said responders could not identify a lot Friday night because there was a fire, but they were taking Saturday to ‘focus on the areas that we’re looking for’.
Eckrote called the incident ‘very usual’ and said the FBI were doing a background check on Russell to determine a motive.
‘Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline,’ said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Saturday morning that president Trump was briefed on the incident and was monitoring the situation. She also praised the response effort for its ‘swift action’ and ensuring public safety.
At one point in the flight, Russell asked air traffic controllers: ‘Hey do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?’
The air traffic controller, trying to keep him on side, replied ‘you know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off’, to which Rich replied: ‘Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.’
He was also heard telling traffic controllers he was ‘just a broken guy’ before telling them he was preparing to go jail.
‘This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me,’ he said.
Once again, traffic control tried to get Russell to land.
‘There is the runway just off your right side in about a mile, do you see that?’ the traffic controller said.
‘Oh those guys will try to rough me up if I try land there…,’ Russell replied. ‘I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh they probably have got anti-aircraft.’
‘They don’t have any of that stuff, we are just trying to find you a place to land safely,’ the traffic controller responded.
Russell told the air traffic controller he wasn’t ‘quite ready’ to bring the plane down.
‘But holy smokes I need to stop looking at the fuel ‘cos it’s going down quick,’ he added.
‘OK, Rich, if you could, could you start a left-hand turn and we’ll take you down to the south-east,’ the traffic controller said.
Ketron Island, where the plane went down, is a densely wooded area home to 24 people, according to the 2000 census. None of the island’s residents were thought to have been harmed.
Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by to F-15s. He said he didn’t see the crash but saw smoke.
‘It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,’ he told the newspaper. ‘The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.’
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West.
Sea-Tac is the ninth busiest airport in the US, and flew 46.9 million passengers and more than 425,800 metric tons of air cargo in 2017.