Two National Forest Service workers hiked several miles and more than 2,000 feet down a mountain and were spotted by a passing motorist Wednesday, two days after they were reported dead in a plane crash near Montana's Glacier National Park.
Suffering from burns and exhaustion, the two had survived a crash that authorities believed had killed all five people aboard the plane on Monday. Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont was inspecting the charred crash site when he got the word.
"I was standing there in the rubble when my cell phone rang and my office told me that there were survivors, and I thought it was a prank," he said. "I looked around at the total devastation, and I said, 'Get out!' " Dupont's deputies had combed the area for signs of survivors. They had found nothing but melted airplane parts and charred remains. The sheriff had already told family members and friends of the five people on board the single-engine Cessna that everyone was killed when the plane went down above the tree line on a mountain south of Glacier.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Jodee Hogg, 23, and Matthew Ramige, 29, were living proof that the sheriff, his staff, the deputy coroner, several pilots and several experts on aviation accidents had all jumped to the wrong conclusion.
"We are just flabbergasted and overwhelmed with joy and angry at ourselves," Dupont said in a telephone interview.
Over the course of two days, Hogg and Ramige had made their way down through forested mountains to U.S. 2, where they were spotted by a passing motorist and flown by helicopter to a hospital in Kalispell, the largest town in northwest Montana.
Hogg, from Billings, Mont., had a sprained ankle, a sore back and burns, her father, Jim Hogg, said. He told the Billings Gazette that his daughter would be released from the hospital in three or four days.
"You can't believe the elation," Hogg said.
Ramige, from Jackson Hole, Wyo., was much more seriously injured. He was flown to the intensive care unit at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, where on Thursday he was listed in serious condition, with a spinal fracture and burns over 20 percent of his body -- including his face, hands and chest.
A Harborview spokesman said he would be hospitalized for at least a month.
Jim Hogg said that Jodee's twin, Kyna, had insisted since the crash that her sister was alive. "Now, she is walking on Cloud 9," he told the Billings newspaper.
"Can you imagine these families?" asked Bob Bryant, whose daughter-in-law, Davita Bryant, 32, was killed in the crash along with pilot Jim Long, 60. Bob Bryant told the Daily Interlake in Kalispell that "they've been told their kids are dead, and now they are resurrected."
When he returned from the crash site Wednesday afternoon, the sheriff had a closed-door meeting with families of those who did and did not survive the crash. They were furious at him for announcing Tuesday that everyone aboard the plane had been killed, Dupont said. They told him that authorities should have continued to search for survivors.
"They said the survivors were out there walking around, and you weren't even looking for them," said Dupont, who said he apologized to the families. "Unfortunately, we are humans, too. The next time I look at an airplane crash, I will probably look at it a little differently."
At a news conference in Kalispell on Thursday, Chuck Curry, an undersheriff in charge of the department's search and rescue, said he had carefully looked for signs of survivors.
"There were no footprints leaving the site, no piled rocks, no written message -- nothing indicating anyone had survived or left the area," he said, according to the Associated Press.
One other passenger on the plane, Ken Good, 58, a Forest Service worker from near Kalispell, may also have survived the impact of the crash. He apparently managed to get out of the wreckage but died a few feet away.
There were three unbuckled seat belts at the site crash, and "now I know why," Dupont said.
The sheriff said he began to examine seats on the plane Wednesday afternoon, after getting the call that there were two survivors. He said it took two-and-a-half 21/2 hours of digging through the crash site before he could find the unbuckled seat belts.
"I have never seen an aircraft burned that badly," the sheriff said. "I don't know how they could have survived the initial impact. In a very short distance, the plane went from a very fast speed to stop."
The plane left Glacier Park International Airport on Monday afternoon on a planned 30-minute flight into the Flathead National Forest, according to the Forest Service. Those on board were supposed to conduct a plant survey and repair telephone equipment.
Bad weather interfered with an air search Monday, and the crash site was not found until Tuesday, when the sheriff announced that one intact body had been found and the other four appeared to have been badly burned.
According to the Daily Interlake, grieving family and friends were being briefed Wednesday by the Forest Service when news came that there were survivors.
"When the call came, and I learned there were survivors, I thought that there is just no way," the sheriff said. "It was astonishing to me. It still is. If there is a definition of 'miracle,' this is it."