SEATTLE — With her step-grandparents dead or dying in 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 in the crash, singed by the fire, fearing an explosion and knowing she couldn’t help the other victims, she 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 to search for the plane’s wreckage on Tuesday, aided by clues Veatch provided, they also marveled at the wherewithal of a teenager who managed to survive. She later joked 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.”
The teen was released Tuesday evening from Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, hospital spokeswoman Melanie Neddo confirmed. Veatch’s father, David Veatch, had traveled from his Bellingham home to be with her, as did a couple of her friends.
In Bellingham, other family friends gathered Tuesday night in anticipation of a happy homecoming, bringing balloons and flowers to David Veatch’s apartment.
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. 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, hospital CEO Scott Graham said earlier.
“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 remained a daunting challenge — especially considering that the plane might have broken apart and been hidden under the thick tree canopy.
David Veatch 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.”
Autumn Veatch’s boyfriend, Newton Goss, 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.
Goss, 16, showed the texts he received from Veatch during the flight, including one that read, “this is so bumpy and it’s making me feel yucky.”
Later, he heard about the missing plane and his heart dropped.
“I had all the hope in the world that she was going to make it out fine,” he said.
Goss said he has 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.”
MARTHA BELLISLE AND GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Alina Hartounian in Phoenix and Manuel Valdes in Bellingham, Washington, contributed to this report.