SEATTLE (AP) — A teenager who survived a small plane crash, then managed to find her way off a rugged Washington state mountainside finally made it home to Bellingham, just as word came that searchers had located wreckage in the area where she emerged from the woods.
Aerial searchers reported spotting wreckage, but crews were not able to reach the heavily wooded north-central Washington site Tuesday night and no positive identification has been made of either the missing plane or its two missing occupants, Leland and Sharon Bowman of Marion, Montana, said Barbara LaBoe, a Washington state Transportation Department spokeswoman for the plane search.
LaBoe said efforts to reach the site would resume Wednesday. Search officials planned to assess whether air crews can be used and also will coordinate any ground crew searches with the Skagit County sheriff’s office, she said.
Survivor Autumn Veatch, 16, has said the Bowmans, 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.
The teen 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, 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 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.