(SEATTLE) — A “suicidal” airline employee stole an otherwise empty passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night and performed dangerous maneuvers in the sky before crashing on an island about an hour later, officials said.
The ground services worker, identified by authorities as a 29-year-old resident of Pierce County in Washington state, died.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said the suspect was a “suicidal male” who “acted alone” and that this was “not a terrorist incident.”
“Most terrorists don’t do loops over the water,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said. “This might have been a joyride gone terribly wrong.”
The man took off from the runway with the Horizon Air passenger plane around 8 p.m. local time Friday, with no one else on board, officials said.
The 76-seat airliner was captured on video doing large loops and other risky air stunts during its hour-long flight.
North American Aerospace Defense Command quickly launched two F-15 fighter jets to pursue the rogue plane, a federal senior aviation source told ABC News. The Federal Aviation Administration said it implemented a “groundstop” for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as soon as the plane was taken, while air traffic controllers “communicated with the individual who was flying the aircraft to try to help him land safely.”
But the plane ultimately crashed on Ketron Island, a small, sparsely populated island about 40 miles away from the airport. The fighter jets were not involved in the crash, according to the sheriff’s department.
Aerial footage of Ketron Island showed a large fiery blaze where the plane crashed. No one on the ground was harmed and no buildings were damaged, officials said.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said normal operations had resumed by 9:30 p.m. local time.
Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck confirmed that the Q400 turboprop plane stolen from the airport “was not scheduled to fly at the time of the incident.”
“While we have not yet confirmed the identity of the employee, we have confirmed that all crew and passengers are accounted for. Air Traffic Control was in contact with the individual during the brief flight before it crashed on Ketron Island about an hour after it left Sea-Tac. No ground structures were involved in the crash,” Beck said in a statement early Saturday. “We are working closely with the authorities and our own safety teams to thoroughly understand this incident.”
Alaska Airlines, the parent company of Horizon Air, confirmed there was an incident involving the “unauthorized operation” of one of its planes.
“I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident. Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement early Saturday. “We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board.”
The FAA said it will “provide support” to local and federal authorities as well as industry partners investigating the incident.
The FBI’s Seattle field office said it was in contact with officials and the incident did not appear to indicate a “terrorist threat.”
“Although response efforts to tonight’s aircraft incident and the investigation are still ongoing, information gathered thus far does NOT suggest a terrorist threat or additional, pending criminal activity,” the agency said in a statement via Twitter on Friday night. “The FBI continues to work with our state, local, and federal partners to gather a complete picture of what transpired with tonight’s unauthorized Horizon aircraft takeoff and crash.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised the response of public agencies.
“The president has been briefed on the incident involving a stolen plane from Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle and is monitoring the situation as information becomes available,” Sanders said in a statement Saturday morning. “Federal authorities are assisting with the ongoing investigation which is being led by local authorities. We commend the interagency response effort for their swift action and protection of public safety.”
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Source: ABC National News