SEATTLE — Ground search crews headed to the wreckage early Wednesday of a small airplane that crashed into a Washington state mountainside over the weekend, while the teenager who survived the impact and hiked her way off the rugged slope was recovering at home.
Searchers under the direction of the Skagit County Sheriff's Office left at 8 a.m. Wednesday, but no positive identification can be made of the plane or its occupants until crews reach the site, said Barbara LaBoe, a Washington state Transportation Department spokeswoman.
Survivor Autumn Veatch, 16, has said Leland and Sharon Bowman of Marion, Montana, her step-grandparents, did not survive the Saturday crash. She provided searchers with clues to the location of the wreckage. The plane piloted by Leland Bowman was bringing her home from a Montana visit.
A different set of searchers also left early Wednesday looking for an airplane that took off from Minnesota with two people on board scheduled to arrive at Orcas Island on Saturday. LaBoe said there was no evidence the two missing planes were involved in a midair collision. The Minnesota plane was on radar several hours after the Montana plane, she said.
Veatch was released Tuesday evening from Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster and arrived home in Bellingham shortly before midnight. Family friends had gathered in anticipation of a happy homecoming, bringing balloons and flowers to the apartment of the teen's father, David Veatch.
"We just want to show her and her family that we care and we love her," said one friend, Amber Shockey. She added that Veatch had said "she was happy to be coming home."
"I mean all in one, it's pretty much sad and happy," Shockey said. "It's everything. It's astonishing that she could do this."
Bruised by the impact, singed by the fire that accompanied the crash, fearing an explosion and knowing she couldn't help the other victims, Autumn Veatch headed down the steep slope, following a creek to a river.
She spent a night on a sand bar and sipped small amounts of the flowing water, worrying 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 tiny Mazama, 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."
Later she managed to 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.
According to Rogers, the Beechcraft 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. Leland Bowman 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."
Autumn Veatch's boyfriend, Newton Goss, also 16, said he and his mother were supposed to pick her up from the airport Saturday. He and Autumn were texting back and forth when his final text to her failed to go through, he said.
Later, he heard about the missing plane.
"I had all the hope in the world that she was going to make it out fine," he said.
Goss said Tuesday he had spoken to Autumn several times since her ordeal.
"She wanted McDonald's. How do you go through that situation and just go, 'I really want McDonald's right now'?" he said. "She's being really light-hearted like she usually is with me. That's reassuring."
Associated Press writers Alina Hartounian in Phoenix and Manuel Valdes in Bellingham, Washington, contributed to this report.