Autumn Veatch, 16, was taken to a hospital Monday afternoon for minor injuries and burns.
“She’s a miracle child,” family friend Chelsey Clark told the Bellingham Herald. “If anybody could do it she could have done it, so we’re elated and happy for her.”
Veatch had said goodbye to her mother in Montana on Saturday and climbed into a red and white Beech A-35 with her step-grandparents, Leland and Sharon Bowman. Her grandfather, a pilot, had planned to fly her to her father’s home in Washington state.
It’s still unknown whether the grandparents survived. Both were on board with Veatch when the plane departed about 1 p.m. Saturday from Kalispell, Mont., headed for Lynden, Wash. Leland Bowman was flying the aircraft.
A couple hours later, it dropped off the radar near Omak, Wash., in bad weather in the Okanogan Highlands foothills, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. The area is about 140 miles northwest of Spokane.
Her father, David Veatch, didn’t even know she was on the private plane until he got a call from authorities telling him the aircraft was missing. He had planned to pick her up that evening from a commercial flight he thought she was on.
“I just, I had a bad feeling about it when they told me what was going on,” he told KIRO-TV.
“She told me that they were flying through the clouds and they crashed into the side of the mountain,” he told the Bellingham Herald after later talking to his daughter.
The plane crashed and caught fire, likely somewhere near, or even in, the North Cascades National Park.
The last cellphone signal was picked up about 4 p.m. For hours, volunteer pilots flew over the area, listening for the plane’s emergency locator beacon and searching for signs of wreckage, KIRO-TV reported. The Federal Aviation Administration and Veatch’s family contacted authorities late Saturday night and, the next morning, the first search plane was dispatched.
Meanwhile, Veatch was in the mountains below. After the accident, she tried to pull her step-grandparents from the plane, her father told reporters. When she realized she couldn’t get them out, she sat at the scene for about a day, crying and waiting for first responders to find them. But eventually, she told her father, she decided she needed to start hiking and search of help.
Veatch spotted drainage and followed it to a stream. She followed the stream to a path called Easy Pass Trail, which the Washington Trails Association defines as “anything but easy.” The 7-mile trail has a gain in elevation of about 2,800 feet, it says.
Veatch took the trail to a road near the east entrance to North Cascades National Park, called North Cascades Highway, family friend Santina Lampman told the Seattle Times. Then Monday afternoon, a driver saw her sitting at the trail head. The driver picked her up and took her to a general store in Mazama, a small town in the Methow Valley near the Canadian border.
“It’s very rugged here,” Mazama Store co-owner Rick LeDuc told The Washington Post late Monday night. “We’re on the edge of the cascades. It’s probably one of the more severe or precipitous portions of the Cascades. It’s pretty daunting terrain.”
When Veatch got to the general store, LeDuc said, a store employee gave her a Gatorade and called 911. “She was clearly shaken by the experience,” he said.
Once she got to the hospital, she phoned her father. That night, he posted a comment on her Facebook page, telling family and friends, “Autumn is ok!”
She was dehydrated and had a temporary muscle tissue breakdown from excessive exercise, Three Rivers Hospital CEO Scott Graham told the Associated Press.
Outside the hospital, David Veatch told reporters his daughter was in good spirits, teasing him about making her watch survival shows on TV with him over the years.
“She’s just an amazing kid,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “There’s more to her than she knows.”
Jeffrey Lustick of the Civil Air Patrol in Bellingham said he has been in the search-and-rescue business 30 years and “moments of joy like this can be hard to find.”
“I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be a first responder and have a survivor,” he told the Bellingham Herald. “Cheers went out when it was confirmed that this 16-year-old girl from Bellingham was alive.”
Authorities are still searching for the wreckage using cellphone records and Veatch’s description of the crash site. Aircraft have been searching the region using special search radios to pick up the plane’s emergency locator beacon, and rescue workers have been hunting on the ground in what the Civil Air Patrol calls “some of the toughest mountainous terrain in the state.”
Crews had not found anything by Monday night, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Weather permitting, they will resume Tuesday morning.