The Gutzlers had been vacationing in Florida.
On New Year’s Eve, Marty Gutzler posted a photo on Facebook of him and his wife, Kimberly, at a resort in Key West. A couple of days later, Gutzler, a commercial pilot, loaded his family into a Piper PA-34, a small twin-engine plane, at Tallahassee Regional Airport and headed back home to Illinois.
On Friday evening, the pilot — apparently Gutzler — reported engine trouble en route to Mount Vernon, Ill. Air traffic controllers redirected him and his four passengers to the nearest airport: Kentucky Dam State Park. But before 6 p.m. local time, he lost contact with them and, less than 10 miles from the airport, the plane crashed in a wooded area in Kuttawa, Ky., in Lyon County, The Washington Post’s Peter Holley reported.
The aircraft came to a screeching halt upside-down and partly on fire, according to the Gutzlers’ 7-year-old daughter, Sailor. Kentucky State Police Lieutenant Brent White referenced the family’s statement during a weekend news conference, Reuters reported.
Sailor Gutzler was the sole survivor.
By Saturday morning, her family’s bodies had been removed, and the plane had been covered. On Sunday, authorities said the plane’s remains were being moved to a spot where National Transportation Safety Board officials could better inspect them. No one speculated what could have caused the crash, but a preliminary report is expected in about 10 days, the Associated Press reported. NTBS investigator Heidi Moats told reporters Sailor might also be able to assist investigators in determining the cause.
“Having someone that is a witness [is] always helpful in the investigation, it gives us kind of a story line,” Moats said.
After the crash, Sailor climbed from the wreckage with a broken wrist and called out to her family. No one answered. She had been traveling with her mother and father, 9-year-old sister, Piper, and 14-year-old cousin Sierra Wilder.
“She believed that her family was deceased but she hoped they were just sleeping,” White said.
In Kentucky’s 38-degree chill, she went for help, still in her vacation clothes — T-shirt and shorts — one sock, no shoes. She later told authorities she wanted to light a stick from the engine’s fire as a makeshift lantern, but she couldn’t find one, the Los Angeles Times reported. So she walked nearly a mile in the dark through “fallen trees, creeks, ditches and blackberry briars,” CNN reported. Police said she hiked over two embankments, climbed a hill and crossed a creek bed.
Then she saw a light, which led her to Larry Wilkins’s home.
When he answered, he found Sailor. Her nose was bleeding. Her arms and legs were covered in scrapes and scratches. She was crying.
“She told me that her mom and her dad were dead, and she was in a plane crash, and the plane was upside down,” he told NBC News. “She asked if she could stay here. I said, ‘Honey, what can I do for you?’ I got a wash cloth and cleaned her up. And of course called 911.”
Wilkins alerted the police. Officers, including White, arrived within minutes. “I was literally struck by how calm she was,” White said.
White said Sailor was able to speak to police and point first responders toward the crash site.
“She literally fell out of the sky into a dark hole and didn’t have anybody but her own will to live and get help for her family,” he told reporters. “Absolutely amazing.”
Sailor was taken to Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Ky., with minor injuries and released to relatives Saturday.
The victims, who were from Nashville, Ill., some 50 miles from St. Louis, were taken to Louisville for autopsies.
A neighbor told the AP the couple was well-liked in the community. Marty Gutzler managed a furniture store his father founded. He was a pilot and flight instructor.
“He loved flying,” Fred Prug, a family friend of the Gutzlers, told ABC News. “I mean, you didn’t have a conversation with Marty without him talking about flying.”
Friends said he had made that same trip to Florida in the past. But Friday evening, something went wrong.
“The Gutzler family mourns the loss of Marty, Kim and Piper Gutzler and Sierra Wilder,” Kent Plotner, an attorney representing the family, said in a statement. “We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God’s loving arms. We ask that you respect our privacy at this difficult time. Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler.”
A donation page has been set up online to “help Sailor obtain the emotional, physical and educational support she will need in the years to come,” according to the site, sailorgutzlerfund.com.
“She is one remarkable young lady,” Moats said.