STEILACOOM, Wash – Crews have removed the wreckage of the stolen Horizon Air turboprop that crashed on Ketron Island late Friday night.
Just getting to the scene was a tough job for first responders Friday night, and firefighters are crediting local island residents for saving them valuable time at the very beginning of this incident.
Investigators are trying to piece together how 3½-year Horizon Air ground service agent Richard Russell stole the empty Bombardier Q400 turboprop on Friday evening and took off on a roughly 75-minute flight, executing steep banks and even a barrel roll while being tailed by fighter jets. He finally crashed, and died, on Ketron Island in Pierce County.
Firefighters say they were able to locate the crash pretty quickly but getting their equipment out there was a challenge. Lucky for first responders they found a neighbor who was retired from the Army special forces who had inside knowledge of the area and the equipment to help.
“We found a citizen who lived over there, he knew of an old access road,” Battalion Chief Tim LaRue from West Pierce Fire & Rescue said Monday.
That man, identified by fire officials as Ronald Scheckler, declined an on-camera interview but he shared with Q13 News new images of the fire caused by the plane crash.
The terrain and overgrowth was too much for crews to get their firefighting equipment to the crash site but Scheckler says he used his backhoe to help firefighters remove obstacles and cut turnouts for emergency vehicles.
“He had a tractor (that was) able to cut a trail for us, which took about 20 minutes, but it took a whole lot of effort out of our hands,” said LaRue. “We wouldn’t have been to do that until the next morning until we get some dozers over there.”
Scheckler also was able to get firefighters access to the island’s water supply – something that, without his help, could have delayed first responders.
“He helped us out immensely," LaRue said.
Over the weekend the National Transportation Safety Board recovered the airplane’s black boxes. The rest of the aircraft was splintered into pieces.
“The wings are off, the fuselage is on a position upside down but it is pretty fragmented,” NTSB’s Debra Eckrote said Saturday.
A pair of flatbed trucks moved the aircraft debris off the island and took it away for further analysis.
Just getting to this point was a challenge for first responders, but made easier by neighbors and others who helped guide them on scene.
“Along with the ferry system, along with those guys running all night shuttling equipment back and for us, it would have been a different ball game,” said LaRue. “We had a lot of people to thank who helped us make this operation go smoothly.”