Last Friday night, Richard Russell (known to friends as “Beebo”) finished his shift loading luggage onto and off of commercial planes at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Instead of going home, though, he headed to the maintenance area. He used a tractor to push a plane onto the tarmac, then boarded the plane and took off. After about an hour of flying around, conversing with air traffic control, and attempting to do tricks, Richard crashed the plane on an island not far from the airport and tragically died.
Needless to say, his family is devastated. In their own words, they say they are “stunned and heartbroken” by what happened. They describe Richard as a “warm, compassionate man” as well as “a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend.” He and his wife were dedicated members of their church, and friends describe Richard as a funny, kind, and happy guy.
The reasoning behind Richard’s actions is unclear. Authorities have deemed his death a suicide, but it isn’t quite so straightforward. He seemed to have a fascination with flight, based on the way he talked about his work and the skill he portrayed while piloting the plane. There’s reason to believe that he may have been unhappy with his work conditions and pay. He certainly wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, though the question remains whether or not he intended to harm himself.
Even mid-flight, Richard himself seemed to be trying to come up with an explanation for what he was doing. “Minimum wage, we’ll chalk it up to that,” he said. “Maybe that will grease some gears a little bit with the higher-ups.” Later on, after performing a loop, Richard was encouraged by traffic control to land the plane. “I don’t know! I don’t want to,” he replied. “I was kind of hoping that was going to be it. You know?” Between expressions of exhilaration over flying the plane and what could be interpreted as a wish to die, Richard also considered what this could mean for his future. Jail time? A job as a pilot? At least some part of him could picture life after this event.
It’s hard to imagine Richard’s state of mind during this incident. The tone of his statements ranged from dark to excited to downright incoherent. But in a moment of particular clarity, he said something that seems to reflect the man that his friends and family knew him to be: "I’ve got a lot of people that care about me, and 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."
Just a broken guy. He had a few screws loose. And he never knew it until he was thousands of feet in the air piloting a stolen plane to his death.
I’m going to be honest: I have no idea what to do with the story of Richard Russell. All I know is that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I read about it last weekend. My heart is broken for Richard, for his friends and family, and for the community devastated by this tragic event. I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for all of them.
When something terrible like this happens, it’s my tendency to look for a clear, simple, straightforward explanation. I want to know why. For some reason, I think that if I can wrap my head around the situation, maybe I’ll feel better.
But here’s the thing: There is no clear, straightforward explanation for what happened. Richard didn’t leave behind a note or a manifesto. He didn’t make a last-minute confession about his motives. He didn’t give us a simple explanation because, honestly, he didn’t have one. Even he didn’t fully understand what was going on. Richard was a victim just like his family, his friends, his community, and all of us who were affected by it.
This is a senseless tragedy; that is, it makes no sense. And even if there were some way to understand it, that wouldn’t change anything. Richard’s still gone. No amount of information or clarity can bring him back. There is no true resolution for something like this, and that’s something I have to accept.
Giving up on trying to understand a tragedy doesn’t mean I give up on finding meaning in it, though. I don’t believe that anything we experience in this life, no matter how senseless, has to be meaningless. There’s no way to undo what’s been done, but there are ways to redeem it. And redeem it we must.
Here’s the only thing I can take away from the story of Richard Russell: What happened to him is awful, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for any of us. If it can happen to a good, beloved, seemingly happy guy like him, it can happen to anyone. We are each just a few bad experiences away from losing control and making a snap decision that changes our lives and the lives of our loved ones. And while that may be a scary thing to recognize, it also gives us perspective on what truly matters.
Take care of yourselves. If you’re feeling like you need some help, reach out. There is someone—probably multiple someones—on this planet who loves you, who can’t do life without you, and who wants to be there for you. All you have to do is express that you are in need. Please, if you are hurting, let someone know.
Be good to one another. If you know someone who’s hurting, take a little extra time to check on them. You aren’t being overbearing; you’re being kind. And you never know when your simple question, “How are you doing today?” could change a person’s life forever. We have more of an impact on those around us than we could ever possibly understand. Let’s use that power for good.
Cherish every single thing. This life is precious, and it’s fleeting. Every person, every experience, every moment that we get on this earth is a gift, and we ought to treat them as such. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but there is nothing ordinary in this life. If you look hard enough, you’ll see the remarkable everywhere. So find it, recognize it, and cherish it as much as you possibly can.
Richard Russell will be remembered for the tragic way his life ended, but that’s not all there is to his story. He was a good man who lived a good life and left behind a family who loves him dearly. We mourn his loss, but his death need not be in vain. We can redeem it.
We can learn from his experience. We can do better than we have. We can live our lives with the fulfillment and contentment that Richard sought. And we can help others do the same. If we do so, we can create a world in which no one has to go through what he did, and in that way, we will honor him.