STEILACOOM, Wash. -- When a stolen Horizon Q400 plane crashed in dense forest on Ketron Island in Puget Sound Friday evening, it not only killed pilot Richard Russell, but created quite the fire.
Ketron Island does not have a fire department, and typically any fire there would be covered by the state Department of Natural Resources. But with the cause being a plane crash, firefighters with West Pierce County Fire and Rescue rushed to get their engines and firefighters to the island.
"The ferry was over on the other side on Anderson Island, so we had about a 25-minute wait to get our resources all gathered up here," said Battalion Chief Tim LaRue.
The ferry emptied the boat on the other side and then LaRue's team loaded up six fire engines and a few police officers for security and headed over to the fire on the south side of the island.
Not an easy find when you're surrounded by forest.
"Basically, we had to chop our way into the brush to find it," he said.
But lucky for them one of the island's residents was there to help.
"(He) let us know there was an old road that had overgrown, and that he had a tractor," LaRue said. "He said, 'you know, I can clear that for you.' So he ran and got his tractor and cleared the road for us by pushing logs out of the way and we were able to get our crash truck and tender back there to fight the fire."
LaRue said normally, the objective is to contain the fire from creating a bigger problem and this was quite the operation with a flaming aircraft that had smashed into several pieces.
"It was quite the operation and took several hours, obviously," LaRue said. "It’s a one lane dirt road with tall grass on both sides so we were even concerned of just parking on the side of the road with our apparatus, afraid we’d start our own brush fire. So we were very careful on that because it was very dry."
The fire was spreading rapidly, but could have been worse as gusty winds that had been around earlier in the day had subsided by the evening.
"So things are on our side, luckily," he said.
Also in a stroke of luck, LaRue thinks the plane was low on fuel, mitigating some of the fire potential.
"I’m not sure if he (Russell) ran out of fuel or he was very low on fuel," LaRue said. "I know that was an issue the flight -- that he was concerned that he was low on fuel so I’m not sure if he ran out of it was very low so it wasn’t an issue for us." He added his team received a safety briefing from Alaska Airlines as they were heading to the fire about the aircraft and amount of jet fuel, "which they said had 550 pounds, max," LaRue said.
He credited ferry workers for being willing to run all night as it was their only way to get equipment and food back and forth from the island.
"They said no problem, they’ll run all night for us as long as you need us to," LaRue said.
The fire was eventually doused, and LaRue described a surreal scene when he returned to the fire site at dawn Saturday morning.
"Pretty eerie sight when we got back at daylight... lot of debris -- nothing's really big, lots of debris throughout the woods probably scattered over a 300-by-600-foot path of devastation," he said. "Just can’t imagine that was a plane at some point."
Investigators are now using five flatbed trucks at a time to shuttle airplane wreckage from the island to shore via the ferry.