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Family of a man who stole and crashed a plane is ‘stunned and heartbroken’

Relatives of Richard Russell say they are “stunned and heartbroken” after the airline worker stole a passenger plane Friday from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was killed when he crashed 25 miles away.

“This is a complete shock to us,” the family said in a statement Saturday night. “We are devastated by these events, and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.”

The statement said Russell, 29, was “a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend.”

Referring to audio recordings of Russell talking to air traffic control during his hour-long flight, the statement said his “intent was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying that there are so many people who have loved him.”

Russell, a Horizon Air ground service agent for three and a half years, was the only person aboard the plane, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said. The job of a ground service agent includes directing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, handling baggage and tidying and de-icing planes, authorities said.

The incident, which the FBI’s Seattle office did not consider terrorism, raises questions about airport security. Investigators headed Saturday to the crash site to recover the plane’s data recorders and Russell’s remains as part of a criminal probe, authorities said.

The 76-seat Horizon Air turboprop plane took off without authorization at 7:32 p.m. local time Friday, with Russell, who was not a pilot, at the controls, officials said.

After Russell talked periodically with air traffic controllers for about an hour, the plane crashed at Ketron Island,officials said.

Video from a witness on the ground shows the plane at one point pulling up for a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down and then pulling back up just feet above a body of water.

Airports nationwide will now look at whether their security procedures need to change, CNN safety analyst David Soucie said. For one, Russell shouldn’t have been able to board the plane alone, he said.

“There is a protocol to not allow anyone singularly to get onboard an aircraft,” Soucie said. “If you’re going to access the aircraft … you make sure that you check with someone else, and that someone else (will confirm) that … you have the right authority to get onto that aircraft.”

Latest developments

Airline and Seattle airport officials revealed the following at a news conference Saturday:

— Russell was credentialed to be in secure areas at the airport, said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group, which owns Horizon Air.

— He passed a series of background checks to gain his position, as he didn’t have any criminal convictions.

— Airline officials believe he was in uniform and worked a shift Friday, Tilden said.

— The plane had been parked in a maintenance area and was not scheduled for a passenger flight, Tilden said.

— He had no purpose to be at that plane Friday evening “other than … what he did do,” Tilden said.

— Besides his other duties, he was qualified to tow aircraft, said Gary Beck, Horizon Air’s president and chief executive officer.

— Officials don’t believe Russell had a pilot’s license, and they don’t know how he knew to fly the plane.

‘I would like to apologize … got a few screws loose’

In audio recordings of the incident posted on Broadcastify, Russell can be heard talking to air traffic controllers as they try to guide him to land the plane.

At one point, he apologizes and says he is a “broken guy” with “a few screws loose.”

“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell says. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

The sheriff’s department described Russell as suicidal. It did not elaborate.

Earlier in the flight, Russell says: “This is probably, like, jail time for life, huh? I mean, I would hope it is, for a guy like me.”

“Well,” a controller responds, “we’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left-hand turn, please?”

Later, a controller discusses getting a pilot on the radio to help Russell control the aircraft.

“Nah, I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” Russell responds.

Russell repeatedly says he would do a roll. Not long before the crash, a pilot who’d been helping controllers advise Russell appears to mention the maneuver.

“Congratulations. You did that. Now let’s land that airplane safely and don’t hurt anybody on the ground,” the helping pilot radios.

Russell responds: “Awwww-right. Ah, dammit. I don’t know, man! I don’t know! I don’t want to. I was kinda hoping that was going to be it. You know?”

The plane eventually crashed on sparsely populated Ketron Island, starting a fire in the woods but injuring no one outside the plane. The fuselage was fragmented and appeared to be upside down, said Debra Eckrote, regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board.