The 16-year-old wandered three days before being picked up on a rural roadside in the North Cascades.
Autumn Veatch went back to school with scars on her back, face and hands — and a new attention she can’t get comfortable with.
“I was kind of self-conscious,” she said of her Aug. 25 return to Bellingham High School, where she is a junior. “The teachers were talking about the accident.”
Is that what she calls it? “The accident”?
“Actually, I call it ‘the plane crash,’ ” Veatch said, almost matter-of-factly. “Because that’s what it was.”
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It was that, but it also was panic, impact and fire. The sound of her grandparents crying for help. It was three days and two nights of trudging through mountainous terrain, cold and hungry, desperate for help, and finally emerging on the side of a highway — and into the national media’s sights.
On July 11, Veatch, 16, was in a small plane with her grandparents, Leland and Sharon Bowman of Marion, Mont. Leland Bowman was flying their Beech A35 out of Kalispell to Lynden, in Whatcom County, near Veatch’s home in Bellingham.
Just before takeoff, Veatch — who hadn’t flown much — texted her boyfriend saying she was “totally going to die.”
Ninety minutes into the flight, Bowman became disoriented and lost in the clouds when the GPS malfunctioned. The plane crashed into a mountain in the North Cascade wilderness.
The Bowmans were trapped in their seats. There was fire all around. Veatch tried to move her grandfather first, but he was too heavy, and her hands were burned. She had no choice but to leave them there and look for help.
Three days later, after mimicking survival tactics she had seen on TV (following a stream, moving downhill, waving to helicopters overhead), Veatch saw a bridge, then signs for the Easy Pass Trail. She followed it to Highway 20, where, for an hour, she stood on the side of the road, shivering in filthy, wet clothes and waving for help. Car after car passed.
Finally, two hikers pulled into the nearby trailhead parking lot, listened to her story and took her to the Mazama Store, where an employee dialed 911 and put Veatch on.
Weeks later, Veatch is back home with her father, David, who is disabled. Her mother lives in Montana. Autumn was visiting her mother before the crash.
Veatch’s hand, back and face are healed but scarred, “really, really bad,” she said.
Veatch was criticized by some who heard her calm voice on the 911 recording and deemed her cold and unfeeling. She’s not; she’s self-possessed. Beyond her years. She answers questions without qualifiers or upspeak. That flatness is actually surety.
That cracks in places, though — as it should when you’re 16 and have seen death up close and escaped it.
Veatch’s biggest challenge now is tiredness. She has bad dreams and night terrors “on a small scale.”
“I’ve been processing things really weird,” Veatch said. “I don’t convey my emotions in a conventional way. I really bottle up and choose to put on a strong face when I am in public.
“But basically, every minute I’m behind closed doors, I am melting down.”
It helps to talk to people she has known for a long time, especially her boyfriend. “He has been here for me more than anybody really has,” she said. “He’s one of the main reasons I made it out alive. I was so desperate to see him again.”
Veatch had emotional issues before the crash, she said. She wasn’t doing well in school, or socially. She has mood swings and saw a therapist for depression and anxiety.
“But what teenager doesn’t deal with that?” Veatch said.
She had been attending Sehome High School until May, when she transferred to Bellingham High School.
“So this is another thing for me to try to cope with,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I always feel exhausted.
“It’s probably best for me not to go to school. A lot more is expected of me than I can provide.”
She is having trouble finding a therapist she connects with: “The process isn’t happening, and it’s really lame. I can’t get the help I need.”
She is hopeful about starting Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which is supposed to help heal trauma and psychological stress.
In the days after, Veatch found herself at the center of a media swarm. Cameras were parked outside Three Rivers Hospital In Brewster, so she tried to exit out the back.
“There was still somebody back there,” she said. “It was really messed up. It was really weird to me.”
A producer from ABC’s “Good Morning America” wanted an exclusive interview, and offered to fly Veatch to New York City, to put her up in a hotel. A tour of the city. Whatever she wanted.
“That would have been super fantastic to do,” she said. “But I was just not comfortable flying. Obviously.”
Others offered her money for an interview, she said, but she turned it down.
“I can’t remember how much,” she said. “It was a lot of money, though.”
“You know what’s weird? When I was in the forest, I was wondering if there would be anything on the news about me,” she said. “If I had died, they wouldn’t have found me or the plane.”
There was Al Roker of the “Today” show calling her “a strong young woman.”
“Refused to die,” agreed co-host Willie Geist.
“It’s weird,” Veatch said. “I never considered myself amazing or super fantastic. I only saved myself, and anybody would have tried to survive.”
There is talk about a book or a movie, she said, but she would rather focus on feeling better.
“Capitalizing on this is not the first thing on my mind,” she said. “It’s really interesting and it’s good for people who are inspired and are like me and can see that they can do stuff they didn’t think they could.”
In interviews after the crash, Veatch spoke of her time in the wilderness. The first steps, feeling scared and lost in the rugged terrain. By the next morning, she was sure she was going to die of hypothermia. She drank small amounts of water but worried it might sicken her. She slept on a sand bar. And she thought about her boyfriend, of everyday things like cereal.
Weeks later, that feeling comes in bursts. She is grateful, then irrational. It’s a vicious cycle she is eager to break.
“When I first came back, I felt that strongly,” she said. “I want to be alive, I just want to be happy and alive. Then I take things for granted and I have to catch myself.”
She has been buying a lot of concert tickets because music helps, and she would rather have experiences than material things.
The other night, she went to see singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson at Make. Shift in Bellingham. The singer — half of the Moldy Peaches, responsible for the lovely “Anyone Else But You” from the “Juno” soundtrack — dedicated a song to Veatch.
“It wasn’t one that I have heard,” Veatch said. “But she’s super nice.”
The next morning, Veatch was home, resting.
“I’m mostly recovering from school,” she said. The schedule. The attention.
“I just want to clean out my room. I’m in a place where I want to clear my mind and clear things out.
“I want to start fresh.”