It's a miracle, no question about it. Moments of joy like this can be hard to find. —Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lustick
SEATTLE — With her step-grandparents inside the burning wreckage of their small plane, 16-year-old Autumn Veatch needed to somehow find her way off the remote, thickly forested Washington state mountainside where they crashed Saturday afternoon.
Bruised by the impact, singed by the fire, fearing an explosion and knowing she couldn't help the other victims, the girl did what she could: She headed down the steep slope, following a creek to a river. She spent a night on a sand bar, where she felt safer. She drank small amounts of the flowing water, but worried she might get sick if she drank more.
She followed the river to a trail, and the trail to a highway. Two men driving by stopped and picked her up Monday afternoon, bringing her — about two full days after the crash — to the safety of a general store in Mazama, a tiny town in north-central Washington, near the east entrance of North Cascades National Park.
"We crashed, and I was the only one that made it out," she told a 911 operator, after a store employee called for her. "I have a lot of burns on my hands, and I'm kind of covered in bruises and scratches and stuff."
As authorities continued searching for the plane's wreckage Tuesday, aided by clues Veatch provided, they also marveled at the wherewithal of a teenager who managed to survive — and to later joke from her hospital bed about how it was a good thing her dad made her watch the television show "Survivor."
"She's got an amazing story, and I hope she gets to tell it soon," said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, who had interviewed Veatch and relayed details of her ordeal to The Associated Press. "It's pretty impressive when you talk to her."
According to Rogers, Beech A-35 was flying over north-central Washington on its way from Kalispell, Montana, to Lynden, Washington, when it entered a cloud bank. Then the clouds suddenly parted, and from her seat behind the cockpit, Veatch could see the mountain and trees ahead. Her step-grandfather, Leland Bowman, of Marion, Montana, was piloting with his wife, Sharon, by his side. He tried to pull up — to no avail.
They struck the trees and the plane plummeted to the ground and caught fire.
"When they came out of the clouds, she said it was obvious they were too low," Rogers said. "They crashed right into the trees and hit the ground. She tried to do what she could to help her grandparents, but she couldn't because of the fire."
Veatch had no life-threatening injuries but was dehydrated and suffering from a treatable muscle tissue breakdown caused by vigorous exercise without food or water, said Scott Graham, CEO of Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster. She stayed at the hospital overnight and was expected to be released Tuesday.
"It's a miracle, no question about it," Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lustick of the Civil Air Patrol told reporters, saying he has spent 30 years in search and rescue. "Moments of joy like this can be hard to find."
Lustick said even with the clues Veatch provided, finding the wreckage and getting to it remains a daunting challenge — especially considering that the plane may have broken apart and now be hidden under the thick tree canopy.
"It' a really steep mountain, and it's going to be difficult to spot," he said. "This is a place where it was difficult for her to come down, but it's going to be even tougher going up. This isn't the kind of place where you can just go in by foot."
The trail Autumn Veatch navigated is called Easy Pass, but the Washington Trails Association website says: "don't be fooled by the name — the way to Easy Pass is anything but easy."
Veatch's father, David Veatch of Bellingham, told reporters outside the hospital late Monday that his daughter was exhausted but doing remarkably well. She was able to joke with him about the survival shows they watched together on television, he said.
"She's just an amazing kid," David Veatch said. "There's more to her than she knows."
Peter Knudson, a spokesman with the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday an on-scene investigation will begin as soon as the aircraft is located.
Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe said two planes and one U.S. Homeland Security helicopter were in the air and they would be joined Tuesday afternoon by a Snohomish County helicopter.
LaBoe said Veatch was able to provide searchers with some information about the area where the plane when down, "but it took her two days to walk out and it is really rugged terrain, so it's still a difficult search."