The family of a “suicidal” airline employee who hijacked a passenger plane in Seattle have spoken of their shock and sadness at his death.
Richard Russell, a ground service agent at Sea-Tac International Airport, took off in an empty 76-seater plane at the height of rush hour on Friday evening.
The Horizon Airlines worker flew the plane for around an hour, committing a number of dangerous manoeuvres while being followed by military jets, before crashing into a small island in the Puget Sound at 8.47pm.
Mr Russell was not named by authorities, but relatives and co-workers identified the 29-year-old, who went by the name Beebo, as the man behind the hijacking.
“He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend,” the Russell family said in a statement.
“A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.
“This is a complete shock to us. We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.”
As federal authorities started the task of working out what drove him to steal a plane, details began to emerge of Russell’s life.
According to a personal blog, he was born in Key West, Florida, before moving to Wasilla, Alaska when he was seven. He eventually landed in Coos Bay, Oregon, where in 2010 he met a woman who would become his wife.
They ran a bakery for three years before heading to Sumner, Washington, to be closer to Russell’s in-laws.
There he worked for Horizon Airlines, a sister carrier of Alaska Airlines, as a ground service agent who helped baggage handlers and was part of the tow team, which moved planes around on the tarmac.
It was a job that gave him the perk of “being able to fly to Alaska at my leisure,” he wrote on his blog.
In a video posted on YouTube last December, Russell shows luggage coming off and being loaded onto planes, and describes what the life of a ground service agent entails.
“That means I lift a lot of bags, like a lot of bags, so many bags,” he says, adding “it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too.”
There are then shots of trips he took, including flying over Alaskan fjords, visiting lavender fields in France, touring in Yucatan, Mexico, and attending a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland.
“It evens out in the end,” he says to end the video.
There was no mention in the social media posts of studying to become a pilot, but in some posts he spoke of his Christian religious faith and the possibility of joining the military.
On SoundCloud, Russell interviews fellow ground service agents, asking them questions that include: “What was one of your best travel experiences using your flight benefits?”
Authorities say he took off from a maintenance area at Sea-Tac before flying for around an hour, often erratically with attempts at aerial stunts, before crashing on Ketron Island, about 25 miles to the southwest.
He appeared to have acted alone and was suicidal, according to the local sheriff’s department.
Russell’s social media posts often showed him on adventures with his wife.
“We were married one year later, and one month after that we opened a bakery which we successfully ran for three years,” he wrote on his blog about meeting his future wife. “We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go.”
His wife could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Seattle Times quoted Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with the airline who retired in May, as saying Russell was a well-liked, quiet person.
In his final moments captured by partial recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers, Russell spoke calmly and said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him, describing himself as a “broken guy”.
“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” he is heard saying in the recording. “Never really knew it until now.”
Additional reporting by agencies