Thomas J. Stewart among five killed in Sunday’s helicopter crash

By Linda Bentley | February 17, 2010

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‘Tom was first and foremost a visionary’

helicopter crsh CAVE CREEK – National Transportation Safety Board (NTSA) Air Safety Investigator Tom Little held a press conference at 5 p.m. on Monday at the corner of 72nd Street and Highland Road, a stone’s throw from where a Eurocopter RC135 crashed in a wash late Sunday afternoon, just missing a number of homes and scattering debris over a three-quarter-mile area.

Little stated, in addition to the five passengers, including one child, killed in the crash, two dogs were aboard the six-passenger helicopter, which also perished.

Although Little stated Thomas J. Stewart was among the five people killed in the crash, he said the rest of the passengers had not yet been identified.

However, Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Dist. 30, who knew Stewart, eulogized Stewart, 64, his wife Madena and the couple's 5-year-old daughter on Arizona’s Senate floor on Monday.

One area resident who witnessed the crash said it appeared pieces of the tail, not the tail rotor, flew off the helicopter just prior to the crash, leaving pieces of the aircraft in his yard.
He described the crash scene as “horrific” with body parts strewn everywhere just prior to the aircraft bursting into flames.

Services Group of America (SGA) confirmed Monday that Stewart, its chairman and CEO, died in the crash.

The helicopter was registered to SGA, a $2.7 billion company ranked 157th on Forbes’ Largest Private Companies in the U.S. list and, according to SGA, was Stewart’s private helicopter.

According to a press release issued by SGA, the roots of the company go back 40 years when Stewart was building Stevedoring Service of America in Seattle.

Stewart moved the corporate headquarters from Seattle to Scottsdale in 2006 after the Washington legislature instituted an inheritance tax amounting to 19 percent on estates worth more than $9 million, a tax that threatened the long-term future of the company. SGA was one of Washington’s largest private employers.

A statement released by SGA in April 2006 called Washington's tax "the highest state inheritance tax in the nation on family-owned companies," and said it left the company "little choice but to move."

SGA is a privately held and family-owned company, which President and COO Peter K. Smith said was a structure that would not change despite the accident.

Smith said, “Tom was first and foremost a visionary. He had a clear and concise continuity plan for the enterprise in place and was completely confident in the current leadership team.”

During his career, Stewart acquired 45 companies, sold or spun-off 22, merged 18 into other companies and closed 79.

He was a long-time philanthropist who supported education and the arts; a community activist championing free enterprise; a life-long adventurer; and a food industry leader that employed over 4,000 people.

Amongst his legendary epic adventures, Stewart embarked on the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest trail from Mexico to Canada on horseback with his family as well as a Jeep safari across Africa. He was an avid golfer, horseman, rancher, fisherman, skier, scuba diver and team roper.

Stewart owned a home in Paradise Valley and the helicopter was reportedly en route to Scottsdale Airpark from the Flagstaff area at the time of the accident.

tom littleAs of Monday, Little said they have not yet identified all the passengers or the pilot and did not have copies of the aircraft’s maintenance log. While the NTSB will be releasing a preliminary report within the next few days, Little said it could take nine months to a year before the final report is completed.

Jackie Juntti, a political activist and blogger who recently relocated to Texas from Washington, met Stewart at the annual GOP picnics he held at his estate on Vashon Island and said, “We have lost a fine man.”

Top Photo by Linda Covey                                                              Photo by Linda Bentley