Autumn Veatch, the Bellingham teenager who survived a plane crash then trekked through the wilderness for days to find help, talks about how she made it.
Autumn Veatch stood on the side of Highway 20, hoping someone would pull over and help her. For an hour, vehicles traveling across the North Cascades whizzed by her.
The drivers on Monday afternoon wouldn’t have known that the 16-year-old girl waving her arms had survived a plane crash, then trekked for days through some of the most treacherous areas of the mountain range. They wouldn’t have known that the girl on the road would soon be on network morning shows and nighttime cable news, hailed as a superhero.
So for an hour, no one stopped for the girl covered in bruises and scratches, who could hardly stand. She had finally reached civilization, but she was still alone.
Veatch was in a small plane last Saturday afternoon with her step-grandparents, flying from Kalispell, Mont., to Lynden, Whatcom County, when the plane crashed in the mountains.
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Leland and Sharon Bowman were killed. Veatch escaped before fire engulfed the plane.
Veatch, a rising junior at Bellingham High School, missed her friends and boyfriend, so she was desperate to come home after spending time with her mom and other family in Montana. Instead of a nine-hour drive to Bellingham, where she lives with her father, the Bowmans offered to take her in their Beech A35. She had only been in an airplane a couple of times, when she went to Arizona in the seventh grade.
As a joke, Veatch sent a text message to her boyfriend while she was on the plane, writingshe was “totally going to die.” An hour and a half into the flight, it started getting bumpy, then the plane dropped.
“I kept the mindset, ‘They know what they are doing, it will be OK,’?” Veatch said Friday. “I didn’t expect anything bad to happen, really.”
Her grandparents didn’t seem scared. Leland Bowman tried to avoid the clouds and used GPS on a tablet to see where the mountains were. The GPS malfunctioned. They went through a cloud bank, and for a few minutes, all Veatch saw was white. She crouched down behind the front seats.
“It was white, then I saw trees, then we crashed,” Veatch said.
For a brief moment after impact, everything was quiet. She isn’t sure how she got out of the plane.
Her grandparents, whom she met on her mother’s wedding day two years ago, who took her to movies, who treated her as one of their own, were trapped in their seats. To get to her grandmother, she would have to pull her grandfather out first.
“I couldn’t pull Grandpa out, because he’s a lot bigger than me,” Veatch said. “And I burned my hand really bad. I was starting to hurt, and it was just so hot.”
The smell and the panic after the couple stopped yelling for help made her want to get away. She didn’t take anything. Everything had burned.
She looked for and found a stream to follow. Stuff was floating in the water, so she tried to avoid drinking it.
When the sun set, she stripped down to her tank top and underwear. She tried to hang her wet clothes on branches, but they wouldn’t dry. She pulled her knees to her chest, wrapped her cardigan sweater around her, tucked her head down, and breathed into her shirt to keep warm.
She didn’t sleep much. Her hand wouldn’t stop burning.
“I was certain I was going to die,” she said. “I was going to die at 16 years without doing anything important with myself.”
She woke up the next morning and walked for a few hours, then decided it was too cold. She lay down and thought “this is it.”
But she kept hearing a stream, which to her sounded like a highway, or a helicopter. It gave her this “weird boost of motivation.”
“I thought, ‘I can’t do this to my loved ones,’?” she said. She thought about her boyfriend, Newton, her family and friends.
She thought about a lot while she was in the woods. She felt selfish because she survived and her grandparents didn’t. She blamed herself.
“They didn’t deserve to have anything happen to them,” she said.
She also thought about small things: cereal, the feel of hugging someone after not seeing them for a long time, her favorite TV shows.
“Appreciate the little things,” Veatch said. “Those are the things you’ll miss when you are in the forest, dying.”
She sang to herself, mostly songs by Karen O from her “Crush Songs” album. She would talk out loud, too. She said “screw this waterfall” when she came across a 20-foot, then 10-foot cascade. She remembered the people she hadn’t gotten along with, and how it all now seemed petty.
“Life is too short to hate everybody,” she said. “Life is way, way too short.”
As she walked, she would look up and occasionally see helicopters. She waved her arms, but none spotted her. She slept on a sand bank that night.
Monday and beyond
She thought she was hallucinating, because she saw a bridge going over the stream she had followed, then a sign for the Easy Pass Trail. She followed the trail, which led to the trailhead parking lot, which went to Highway 20. Nobody stopped to pick her up.
“I’m hurt, I’m all burned up, but a part of me can’t blame them for not stopping because I looked pretty messed up and disgruntled,” she said.
It was getting hard for her to stand, so she walked to the parking lot, thinking hikers might soon come back to their car. They didn’t, but a red car pulled into the lot. She went up to the two men who had planned to hike.
“They were very, very, very nice about it,” she said. They gave her Gatorade and snacks, and drove her to The Mazama Store, where an employee called 911.
Veatch matter-of-factly told the dispatcher there had been a plane crash in the mountains and she was the only one who made it out. She has since read comments calling her emotionless, how she sounds stone cold in the call.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I had had three days to dwell that my grandparents had died.”
She was taken to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, Okanogan County, and was released Tuesday night. The media swarmed the small hospital.
One network keeps sending her direct messages on Instagram, hoping to arrange an interview. At least one other offered to pay for her family and friends’ hotel rooms when she was in the hospital.
Veatch has been recognized at a gas station, an ice-cream store and even Walgreens at midnight, when she was picking up medication.
“I’m an average person that was put in an extraordinary position,” she said.
She’s still in shock, but talking is helping. She knows she’s just started the grieving process.
“Just seeing the things that I had to see, that’s going to haunt me forever.”