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Rogue plane takes off from Sea-Tac Airport; crashes on remote Pierce County island

FILE: A Horizon Air Bombardier DHC8-Q400 at Sea-Tac Airport.
Flickr Photo/Kentaro IEMOTO (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Horizon Air Bombardier DHC8-Q400 at Sea-Tac Airport. A plane of this model is the one that was hijacked and crashed in Pierce County, just south of the airport.

At 8:30 Friday night, one of our reporters, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch wrote an ominous tweet:

“My pilot speaking,” her tweet began. “It’s a Horizon Q400 big turboprop. Some guy stole it. Looked up how to fly on the internet. He’s been around Mount Rainier, now is going to Olympics. He doesn’t know what he is doing. He has everything in the area locked down.”

Within the hour, Sea-Tac Airport confirmed the rogue mission: "An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound." 

The Pierce County Sheriff's Office tweeted that the pilot was a 29-year-old airline mechanic who was suicidal, and that he acted alone. The Sheriff's Office said they were looking into his background.

The plane crashed on Ketron Island, which had 17 inhabitants, per the 2010 Census, and 10 families. The tiny island is accessible only by ferry or boat.

Fighter pilots from the Air National Guard of Washington and Oregon flew alongside the plane, according to an emailed statement from Gov. Jay Inslee. “But in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed on Ketron Island.”

Austin Jenkins, from our partner Northwest News Network, was at Ketron Island on Friday night.

"We can see evidence of fire on the hillside here on this island,” he said in a reporter standup. “Police boats and helicopters are circling. There is a ferry at the dock and police vehicles with flashing blue lights are moving away from the ferry at this point. This is clearly the location where this plane went down.”

Jenkins described the island as remote, dark and sparsely populated.

“What we're seeing is a glow in the woods of what appears to be the remnants of where this plane went down,” he continued. “The remnants from the flames from the fire that was started when the plane crashed.”

Saturday, firefighters were still battling flames in the forest there.

Alaska Air confirmed the rogue plane: "Alaska Airlines believes a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air was the individual responsible for flying the Horizon Q400 without clearance," Alaska said in a statement. "This individual who took the aircraft, who has not yet been positively identified until remains are examined, is believed to have been the only person on the plane."

In a video statement, Constance von Muehlen, Horizon Air’s chief operating officer, said that the plane departed around 8 p.m. and that no other passengers or crew were aboard. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual” who flew the plane, she said.

Meanwhile, Deborah Wang, a former KUOW reporter was also tweeting: “Never experienced a plane being delayed on the tarmac because the airspace is closed,” she wrote. “But that’s what’s happening at Sea-Tac Airport right now.”

Operations at the airport, which sits between Seattle and Tacoma, were disrupted for hours, with aircraft  stacked up in the skies around Puget Sound or sitting on the ground at Sea-Tac. 

A turboprop aircraft is designed for short distance flights, according to the Alaska Air website. “The Bombardier Q400 features 76 comfortable seats and boarding doors in both the front and rear of the plane for faster passenger loading and deplaning.”

Around the south Puget Sound area, people captured terrifying scenes on video, including the aircraft doing a roll. Warning: The first video has explicit language.