19-Year-Old Mission Viejo Student : 4th County Plane Victim Identified

Times Staff Writer

The name of a fourth Orange County victim of Northwest Flight 255 surfaced Tuesday, a college student who was transferred onto the plane Sunday because his scheduled flight was late.

Friends in Mission Viejo said relatives of Rhett Bushong, 19, had telephoned with the news that the young man was aboard the plane which crashed and burned on takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

They said he was flying home early from a family reunion in Toledo, Ohio, in order to attend the opening of football practice Monday at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Bushong originally was booked onto Continental Airlines Flight 1677 Sunday from Detroit to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, said Bruce Hicks, a Continental spokesman.

When it appeared that his Continental flight would leave too late to meet its connecting flight in Denver, Continental booked him onto the Northwest flight, Hicks said.


Hicks said that Bushong was one of “a couple” of passengers who had asked to be transferred to other airlines but that Bushong was the only one placed on the Northwest flight.

“I talked to Rhett in his backyard the day before he left. He was picking lemons to take them to the family reunion,” said next-door neighbor Robert Chaney.

He said Bushong’s parents--Reid Bushong, an eighth-grade science teacher at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, and his wife Jean--had left for the reunion earlier and still were in Michigan.

Jean Bushong telephoned neighbors to say that her son had been on the plane that crashed, Chaney said.


“They’re just a very nice family,” he said. “I’ve lived near them for 20 years.”

Robert Metz, principal of Mission Viejo High School, said he remembers Rhett Bushong “very well. He’s the kind of kid that you don’t easily forget.”

He said Bushong was graduated from high school in June, 1986. He was a “fairly good student, not an academic giant, but that’s not important. He was a good person, did well. . . . I think the interest he had from youth on was athletics. He grew up in athletics. Just a very nice young man.”

Bill Crow, the high school’s head football coach, said Bushong was a member of the school’s football and wrestling teams and was a pole vaulter on the track and field team.

“He was not a star, but he took part,” Crow said. “He was a good kid.”

A former football teammate at Mission Viejo, Craig Whitley, said Bushong was “pretty good, a running back” but quit the team his sophomore year.

Both Whitley and Bushong were members of the Saddleback College football team that opened practice Monday. In college, Bushong was to be a linebacker.

“We just called him Red,” said Saddleback College head football coach Ken Swearingen. “He was a tall, skinny, red-headed guy who was working hard. He always smiled.”


“I had him in phys. ed. classes, and he was always a pleasure to be around,” Crow said. “Always a smile. Kind of kid who could get the class laughing, that I could have fun with. “He’d really set some good goals for himself. He’d enrolled at Saddleback College. Everything was in focus for him. He had been a very fun-loving, carefree kid in high school. I remember remarking that now he’s got both feet on the ground, his head screwed on right. Then to hear he was on the plane.”

Crow said Rhett Bushong’s younger brother, Penn, a junior, is a linebacker and tight end on the school’s football team.

His older brother, Joel, works for a tree-stump removal service, a neighbor said.

Crow said Reid Bushong has for years been “very involved in our athletic booster club” and is on the boosters’ board of directors.

He described the Bushongs as a “very visible” family. “I’ve known them for a long time in the community.”

No official list of passengers on the doomed Northwest flight has been released. It was learned previously, however, that 16-year-old Hidi Ratliff of Santa Ana and Raphael Tombasco Jr., 34, and his wife, Lisa, 26, both of Laguna Hills, died in the crash. The college-age daughter of a Tustin couple also may have been on the plane, according to a neighbor.

About 10 passengers aboard the Northwest flight, which was scheduled to stop in Phoenix, were believed to have been headed for John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Times staff writer Steve Kresal contributed to this story.