The family of an airline employee who stole an empty passenger plane before crashing it in Seattle has made a statement to US media, describing Richard ‘Beebo’ Russell as a “kind and gentle” man.
Russell, 29, who authorities say was suicidal and did not have a pilot’s licence, died after the plane plummeted into a small island yesterday.
The statement was read by family friend Mike Matthews, on behalf of Russell’s loved ones, who pleaded for privacy for the family and said this would be the only time the family would address the media.
“This is a complete shock to us,” Mr Matthews said.
“We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now. Without him we would be hopeless.”
The family described the 29-year-old as a “faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend”.
As he was in the air, Russell could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he was “just a broken guy”.
An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the aeroplane.
“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller said, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” Mr Russell responded, later adding “this is probably jail time for life, huh?”
Later, Russell said: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this … just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
Russell’s family said in the statement the recordings showed he wasn’t planning to harm others.
“As the voice recordings show Bebo’s intention was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying there are so many people who loved him,” Mr Matthews said.
Russell was an airline ground agent working his regular shift when he stole the empty Horizon Air turboprop plane and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport.
Officials said yesterday to their knowledge, he wasn’t a licensed pilot.
Gary Beck, CEO of Horizon Air, said it wasn’t clear how Russell knew to start the engine, which requires a series of switches and levers.
Video footages also shows Russell doing loops in the plane.
It was unclear where he got the skills to perform such manoeuvres, authorities said.
Investigators said Russell used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off.
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said they still working closely with authorities as they investigated what happened.
“Safety is our number one goal,” Alaska Airlines chief executive Brad Tilden said.
“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.”
Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, said “the greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat”.
“Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane,” he said.
Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time and details would not be released right away.
“Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed,” he said.
Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyond blue on 1300 22 4636.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.
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