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Plane stolen from Seattle airport crashes after F-15s intercept it; video shows fighter jet chase

A plane was stolen from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport late on Friday. It was crashed a short time later after F-15 fighter jets intercepted it. (Image source: KCPQ-TV screenshot)

An airline employee stole an unoccupied passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was intercepted by military fighter jets before crashing on an island in the Puget Sound late Friday.

What are the details?

A 29-year-old Horizon Air employee stole the Q400 turboprop plane and conducted an "unauthorized takeoff" around 8 p.m. PST, according to KING-TV. The man flew for about 90 minutes while F-15 fighter jets tailed him. The joyride came to an end when he crashed the plane into Ketron Island, a small island southwest of Tacoma.

Investigators said the incident was not related to terrorism. Instead, police described the man as "suicidal" who experienced "emotional distress" when communicating with air traffic controllers.

The motive is not yet clear. Investigators have not yet determined whether the man stole the plane for a dangerous joyride or with the intention of taking his life.

Operations at Sea-Tac airport, the largest commercial airpot in the Pacific Northwest, were temporarily halted during the incident, but resumed after the hijacking came to its tragic end.

What did witnesses see?

Witnesses in the area posted videos to social media showing the 76-passenger plane, meant for short flights, doing dangerous ariel maneuvers while F-15 fighter jets scrambled behind it.

Video also shows smoke billowing off the island where the plane crashed.

The two F-15 fighter jets seen intercepting the plane were scrambled out of Portland after the Federal Aviation Administration requested Department of Defense assistance, the military's North American Air Defense Command said.

"The stolen aircraft initially tracked south from Seattle-Tacoma. NORAD fighters were working to redirect the aircraft out over the Pacific Ocean when it crashed on the Southern tip of Ketron Island in the Southern end of Puget Sound. NORAD fighters did not fire upon the aircraft. The event was subsequently passed to local rescue and law enforcement," NORAD said.

What did the man tell ATC?

Live air traffic control audio captured the heartbreaking conversation between the man inside the plane and ATC, according to the Seattle Times.

The man, who was referred to as "Rich" and "Richard," described himself as a "broken man." All the while, an air traffic controller is instructing the man to safely land the plane.

In one instance, Rich told ATC: "This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me."

In another, he said: "I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. 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 man was believed to be employed as a ground service agent for Horizon. Those employees help direct aircraft approaching and leaving gates, as well as assist with de-icing planes.

What did the airline say?

Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon, released the following statement:

Alaska Airlines believes a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air was the individual responsible for flying the Horizon Q400 without clearance from Sea-Tac International Airport around 8 p.m. tonight. The plane, which was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for passenger flight, crashed about an hour later in a wooded area on Ketron Island in rural Pierce County. No ground structures were involved at the crash site. Military jets were scrambled from Portland, but it does not appear that these jets were involved in the crash of the Horizon aircraft. 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 when the plane was taken from a maintenance position at Sea-Tac. First responders are at the crash site. Appropriate government agencies, including NTSB, FAA and FBI, have been notified.

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