ANN ARBOR, MICH., AUG. 18 -- Out of the wreckage, the tears and the tragedy came today the touching tale of 4-year-old Cecilia Cichan, the only survivor of the second worst airline disaster in U.S. history, and her "beautiful family."

Her grandfather, Anthony Cichan, a man of great dignity and simple eloquence, and two of her uncles described it as an emotional roller coaster, as heroism and, over and over again, as "a miracle."

"The range of emotions you can't explain. The shock. The joy that she is alive. The whole feeling of emotion, the frustration, the helplessness," said Karl Schmidt, an uncle. "It is still a tragedy. But the fact that Cecilia is alive gives us a positive piece we can pull from the story and live with it."

Cecilia, a lively little girl, had boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 255 with her father, Michael, 32, a promising botany professor at Arizona State University; her mother, Paula, a nurse who celebrated her 33rd birthday Friday, and her 6-year-old brother, David.

They were returning to Tempe, Ariz., after visiting the children's grandparents in the Philadelphia area. Anthony Cichan, a real estate investor from Maple Glen, Pa., and other relatives heard on television that the plane had crashed on takeoff.

"Of course, we knew they were on that flight," he told a news conference at the University of Michigan Hospital complex today. "We were hoping the very best, but when word came there were no survivors, we were extremely, extremely depressed."

But Cichan kept phoning his son's Tempe house until 3 a.m. Monday, hoping that for some reason the family had changed flights at the last moment.

They hadn't.

The next morning, Cichan heard a televised report that one unidentified girl, cradled in the arms of a dead woman, had been pulled alive from the wreckage. Rescue workers said they had heard "screaming that sounded like an adult," he recalled.

But Cichan had a grandfather's instincts. "Ladies and gentlemen, our little Cecilia could scream like an adult," he said assuredly today.

He promptly decided that the survivor was "our beloved Cecilia." He had trouble, however, convincing anyone in authority.

He was sure his daughter-in-law had saved Cecilia. "The real hero in the life-saving process was her mother, Paula," Cichan said. "Anybody who knew her would know she'd give up her life to save little Cecilia."

Firemen, paramedics and a young doctor had pulled the girl from a piece of burning wreckage so mangled that it was impossible to tell if it was part of the airliner or an automobile crushed by debris.

Dr. John Gary Girardot, an off-duty intern at Oakland Hospital who assisted rescuers, was convinced the girl had been a passenger. "We found her strapped into her seat with her Mom on top of her," he said in an interview today. "She was breathing fine. She had pretty good color." And she kept on crying.

At least five other people initially claimed the injured girl as a relative. A Pittsburgh man, looking for his missing niece, spent almost 10 minutes in her room Monday afternoon.

The child, suffering third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body, was covered with bandages. Her face was badly bruised. Doctors at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital here had spent four hours operating on her broken left leg, inserting a pin in the thigh bone.

When hospital officials told Cichan that the injured girl had been brought in with blond, braided hair, painted fingernails and a chipped tooth, he decided to fly here with two of Cecilia's uncles, "99.8 percent sure it was her."

"How many 4-year-olds wear purple fingernail polish?" he asked.

The tooth, Cichan said, had been a big topic of conversation during Cecilia's visit. And Sunday, just before the family left Philadelphia, one of Cecilia's grandmothers, Pauline Ciamaichela, had applied a fresh coat of purple nail polish to Cecilia's fingers and braided her long, blond hair.

The three men were ushered into Cecilia's room about 9 p.m. Monday. "My initial reaction was the child I was seeing was badly injured," Cichan recalled. "But after a few seconds I knew it had to be our little girl. We were gratefully relieved."

"It was an incredibly emotional moment. She was pretty banged up," said Cichan's son, David. "When we saw the purple fingernail polish and the braids, we all just broke down."

The family, David said, regarded her survival as "a miracle."

"It was a miracle," Cichan echoed.

Cecilia's condition, listed Monday as critical, was upgraded today to serious. Catherine Cureton, a hospital spokeswoman, said Cecilia was being treated for a concussion, a broken collarbone, the broken leg and third-degree burns on her arms and hands. She was unconscious, Cureton said, but responding to stimuli.

Hospital spokesman Michael Harrison said Cecilia remained on a respirator today after a team of doctors led by Dr. Theodore Polley set her leg and collarbone. He said the most severe burns are on her hands and will require skin grafts.

Experts interviewed today said that modern burn treatment usually includes surgery "relatively soon" to remove dead tissue that might promote infection. Dr. Kurt Newman, an attending surgeon at Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said temporary skin grafts, using donated skin or pig skin, sometimes are used to prevent infection and allow healing until permanent grafts can be performed using the patient's skin.

Surgical treatment, Newman said, is especially important on hands because scarring could limit mobility. Experts said Cecilia's improvement over two days and her youth were cause for hope.

"Her overall prognosis is good, guarded but good," Cureton said.

Cecilia's grandfather was even more optimistic. "Ladies and gentlemen, she's going to make it," he told reporters. "She's a super little girl and she's going to make it."

Later, he added, "That little girl is probably as strong as anyone here when she's healthy. She's an amazing little girl. She's brilliant. She has all kinds of talent."

Did her survival lessen the family's sorrow? he was asked.

Cichan paused at the question. Earlier, he had shown reporters a photograph of Michael, Paula, David and Cecilia posing on a ridge overlooking Phoenix -- a carefree, happy young family on a weekend outing. He recounted how Michael had presented a research paper just last week at Ohio State.

"Lessen the loss of my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandson," he said slowly. "Well, we lost three instead of four. Our hearts are very deep with emotion, but we're thankful to the good Lord for giving us the miracle he did."

"But we're extremely, extremely distressed over the loss of three beautiful human beings," he added. "It was a beautiful family. God, if you only knew them. They were just super." Staff writer Susan Okie contributed to this report.