An American teenager who survived a small plane crash, then managed to find her way off a rugged Washington mountainside, finally made it home just as word came that searchers had located wreckage in the area where she emerged from the woods.
Aerial searchers reported spotting wreckage, but crews were not able to reach the heavily wooded site in Washington state Tuesday night and no positive identification has been made of either the missing plane or its two missing occupants, Leland and Sharon Bowman of Montana, said Barbara LaBoe, a Washington state Transportation Department spokeswoman.
LaBoe said efforts to reach the site would resume Wednesday.
The teen, Autumn Veatch, 16, has said the Bowmans, her step-grandparents, did not survive the Saturday crash. The plane piloted by Leland Bowman was bringing her home from a visit to Montana.
The teen was released from a hospital Tuesday evening and arrived home in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle, shortly before midnight. Family friends had gathered in anticipation of a happy homecoming, bringing balloons and flowers to her father's apartment.
"We just want to show her and her family that we care and we love her,'' said one friend, Amber Shockey. She added that Veatch had said "she was happy to be coming home.''
"I mean all in one, it's pretty much sad and happy,'' Shockey said. "It's everything. It's astonishing that she could do this.''
Bruised by the impact, singed by the fire that accompanied the crash, fearing an explosion and knowing she couldn't help the other victims, the girl 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.
"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.''
Later she managed to joke from her hospital bed about how it was a good thing her dad made her watch a reality television show about people surviving in the wilderness.
"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.
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. Leland Bowman 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.''